While many children have fantasized about being an astronaut exploring the depths of space, the reality is this kind of job doesn’t simply entail hopping in a rocket ship and blasting off into orbit. Not only do astronauts go through years of tedious training, but they’re also prepared to endure the endless perils outer space has to offer.
The Universe is a very dangerous place, and contains several hazardous conditions that potentially put astronauts in life-threatening situations. A space mission could be cut short by disaster before the spaceship even leaves Earth (see Challenger explosion). In addition to collisions with debris along with various communicative and technical malfunctions, astronauts are susceptible to a number of medical conditions. The weightlessness of space and abundance of radiation could prompt the formation of conditions like heart disease, which raises a bigger issue of how prepared these pioneers would be if an unprecedented medical emergency occurred.
One potential solution that could help save lives in an outer space medical emergency situation is 3D printing. This method could arguably be used to create the tools needed for astronauts to save the lives of another crew member. Medical equipment in space was a topic initially discussed among a panel that participated in the Euroanaesthesia Congress. The congregation comprised of several doctors who expressed concern over potential scenarios where astronauts contract an unprecedented illness or injury on a long-term interplanetary mission.
Professor Jochen Hinkelbein, President of the German Society for Aerospace Medicine, was recently quoted in an article, specifically mentioning a voyage to Mars when discussing the aspect of medical emergencies in space. Professor Hinkelbein noted how a mission to a planet like Mars (which could take years to complete) would become a lot safer by including a 3D printer on the spacecraft.
“Since astronauts are selected carefully, are usually young, and are intensively observed before and during their training, relevant medical problems are, fortunately rare in space,” says Hinkelbein. “However, in the context of future long-term missions, for example to Mars, with durations of several years, the risk for severe medical problems is significantly higher. Therefore, there is also a substantial risk for a cardiac arrest in space requiring CPR.”
Fortunately, NASA is slightly ahead of the game, having previously conducted 3D printing tests. Niki Werkheiser, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center 3D printer program manager, oversaw a project where a ratchet was 3D-printed on the International Space Station (ISS).
“In less than a week, the ratchet was designed, approved by safety and other NASA reviewers, and the file was sent to space where the printer made the wrench in four hours,” says Werkheiser when interviewed for NASA’s website.
Although the ratchet was one of 1600 3D printing experiments conducted on the ISS, the project’s success opens further possibilities of medical accessories and tools becoming available by simply pushing a button for them to be created by 3D printing. It’s worth noting how the blueprint of the tool was “beamed” up from Earth. Transfering information and design blueprints using this method could very well occur every time the ISS or future astronauts on long-term missions need to print out tools and accessories, making this machine-to-machine communication an essential part of space travel. This type of innovation is definitely a huge weight that would be lifted off astronauts’ shoulders, especially those involved in a future Mars mission.
Filed Under: 3D printing • additive manufacturing • stereolithography, M2M (machine to machine)