Now that the first functioning 3-D printer is on the International Space Station, scientists have settled on one of the first useful products to be printed: A buckle intended to keep astronauts healthy.
Designed by former flight surgeon and astronaut Yvonne Cagle, the buckle is intended to tighten a compression strap that prevents muscle loss and maintains heart strength in zero-gravity conditions–a persistent challenge for space health.
“I became very intrigued with what would happen if you could get the G [gravity] suit and actually used it to recondition the body,” Cagle says. “Until we can print humans, we have to keep the human body conditioned so it can perform its tasks while living in space for extended periods of time,” she says.
In designing the buckle, Cagle and Made in Space faced an engineering challenge: how to make the device strong enough to withstand the rigors of space flight. “In order to get there you need something that is going to be a really powerful stabilizer but has a small enough footprint and is simple enough to fix or print more if you need it.”
Cagle, along with the space 3-D-printing startup Made in Space ended up with a simple design that could do something as complicated as gauge and verify the pressures that are needed to recondition the body amidst the atrophying effects of low gravity.
Designed to be placed on large muscle groups, the buckle is part of a harness and compression system that astronauts can place anywhere–a kind of muscle-preserving wearable technology, says Cagle. Sometime next year, it will be printed and assembled on the space station from three separate printed sections, each approximately 4.5 inches by one inch.
“Without the buckle, it’s just an Ace wrap that isn’t able to generate higher pressures that could protect muscles and nerves,” she says. “The buckle is really the turnkey to lock together the different embodiments and design.”
Printing objects in space solves the problem of using lightweight parts that could be damaged under the stress of a launch—and obviates the need to bring extras from Earth. But Cagle and Autodesk director of strategic initiatives Jonathan Knowles have already started thinking about the buckle’s more earthly benefits too. “Not only can it be used for extended-stay space exploration or commercial space, but it can be emailed to people on Earth who are in bed rest or rehabilitating.”
The buckle, designed in Autodesk’s Fusion 360, will be printed on Made in Space’s second generation printer, which will be launched in the second quarter of 2015. The California-based company made history when its 3-D printer reached the space station in September. It printed its first off-world piece last week, a generic white plastic part emblazoned with the words “NASA” and “Made in Space.”
Cagle says she intends to analyze the data from that initial print to finalize what materials will be used for the buckle. “Now we know that you can put up the design in record time, and then the crew can very promptly and reliably print something that works.”
Even though she’s a former Air Force colonel and astronaut, one of Cagle’s possibly most important triumphs was as a singer on the International Space Orchestra, where she met Knowles, who introduced her to the printing tools.
Knowles says he has been exploring space manufacturing design tools for the last six years and served as an advisor to Made in Space’s four employees before they started the company. Then Autodesk became its first investor.
He and Autodesk have also been involved with commercial projects like the Google Lunar X prize and Moon Express–the first privately funded company to announce it will put a robot on Mars, sometime in 2016.
“Our intent is as we look to establish a permanent additive manufacturing facility on the ISS, to have this thing Yvonne designed be one of the first meaningful things manufactured off-world,” Knowles says.
Cagle, Knowles, and Made in Space spent the last three years designing the materials and processes for 3-D printing that could withstand the G-forces of space. Cagle says designers no longer have to design for the rigors of what it takes to get to space, but can now design things and make them directly in space. “Using 3-D printing, we didn’t have to go back to the manufacturer,” Cagle says. “We just redid the print trying out different designs in a matter of minutes.”
Though the current printer only prints ABS plastic, Knowles is hopeful the next generation will be able to print more materials, and in the future–including those mined from an asteroid.
“You need to take the next big step in materials if you want to have an off-world future,” Knowles says. “With some of the [3D Printing] patents expiring soon–that are ancient–we’re going to see an explosion in materials [possibilities], so I don’t know what we’re going to use.”
“It’s an opportunity to invent new uses for old materials or old uses for new materials that we never considered before,” says Cagle.
Other printed objects Cagle wants to design for living in space: an inventory tracking device to alert when supplies are running low, first aid devices like finger splints, and utensils with longer handles–meant to keep astronauts and their spacecraft from getting messy during suppertime.