Printheads in Space

[Image: The International Space Station, courtesy of NASA, via PopSci].

Space offers a quick look at the possibility that we might someday print space stations into existence in orbit.

A seemingly website-less company called Made in Space “wants to launch 3-D printers into orbit and use them to make parts for spacecraft and space stations, which would be assembled in zero gravity.” They would do this using “thin layers of ‘feedstock,’ which can be metal, plastic or a variety of other materials.” Even better, when parts break down, they’d simply be recycled back into future printed components: “Rather than shuttling a replacement part from Earth to a space station, 3-D printers aboard the station could simply crank out whatever’s needed. And the broken part could be recycled into feedstock.”

Of course, this is not entirely different from earlier visions of using radically exported 3-D printers to construct bases in situ on the moon’s dusty surface (using “lunar concrete“)—albeit, here, there is even less gravity to work with and a much more urgent need to plan for the availability of future construction material.

As it happens, a few years ago I was speaking with a concept artist who had worked on some of the earliest (and eventually unused) design proposals for Avatar; these included, he explained, plans for elaborate 3-D printers that would be used by the military in order to establish a rapid forward-operating base architecture on that alien world.

In a way, though, this is simply the microgravitational realization of BLDGBLOG’s earlier proposal for permanently installing 3-D printers inside perpetually incomplete works of architecture so that they can self-expand and internally reorganize over time.

[Image: Mars rover and its gadgets, courtesy of NASA].

This would seem to lead to the question of why 3-D printers, even absolutely tiny ones, aren’t already being included on Mars rover missions in order to test the validity of these architectural ideas; why pack only cameras and chemical sensors and their like on these offworld robots when you could add some kind of robust printhead assemblage? If you could put enough printheads on Mars, say, scattered around like totem poles, some of them could even be rented out as design studio equipment for experimental classes at Georgia Tech or the AA. What, then, would be the implications for the future of Mars archaeology, when the impulse toward heritage management will include artificial constructions on other worlds?

Having said all this, of course, architect Mark Hogan pointed out on Twitter this morning that “3d printing sounds so promising but the printed objects often still look like real-world low-res 3d bitmaps”—sobering, to be sure, but the idea of lo-fi, dot-matrix-quality space stations orbiting the planet, passing over continents and tropical island chains and glinting with distant starlight at 2 in the morning as insomniacs gaze up at the sky, actually seems even more endearing. And, I’ll admit, I have something of a mystical attachment to the possibilities of 3-D printing.

Fast, cheap, and out of control—and coming soon to a sky or offworld near you—these 3-D printers, like tubes of semi-sentient toothpaste, will extrude their low-res geometries, where 8-bit objects meet outsider art, as platforms for the future of human exoplanetary civilization.

(Via Popular Science).

Lunar urbanism

Apparently ‘learning from nature’, François Roche and Behrokh Khoshnevis are working on a concrete spray-nozzle that ‘spits wet cement while a programmable trowel smoothes the goo into place’. They’re now wedding that with Roche’s own ‘viab’ device: ‘a construction robot capable of improvising as it assembles walls, ducts, cables, and pipes.’
They want to build skyscrapers on the moon.
There’s a movie coming out this summer called *Stealth* with Jamie Foxx that looks really, really bad. An AI bomber put to use by the Air Force – or Navy – gets struck by lightning, thereby rewiring its circuits into a predatory killing machine… What would be at least moderately more interesting, however, would be if a Roche/Khoshnevis viab/concrete nozzle assembly is struck by lightning, or perhaps reprogrammed by some strange shift in the local geomagnetic curtain: it thereafter starts building uninhabitably complex architectural structures out of a near-infinite supply of concrete from a nearby gravel plant. After only six days we’re talking Tower of Babel proportions. Soon you can see the results from six, seven, eight miles away; soon from the International Space Station.
A group of grad students volunteers to go out and waterproof it, sealing and perhaps painting it, and the autonomous viab/nozzle takes on literally mythic proportions. Soon Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of these States, starts an epic poem based on the legend of Theseus and the Cretan labyrinth, rewriting it with the viab/nozzle as hero.
It just goes and goes and goes. Soon all of the American southwest is a hive of concrete. Skateboarders flock en masse to try out its arcs and curves, deep bowls and slopes perfect for next year’s X-Games. The galleries of New York fill with photographs and watercolors; avant-garde black-and-white films are released to great fanfare at European festivals; the President visits, complaining that it blocks access to resources vital to the extraction industry.
Soon the original – and real, mind you – purpose of the viab/nozzle is achieved: they are sent up to the moon, and Mars, and beyond – perhaps even to the bottom of the sea – in order to begin a more inhabitable, humanly useful construction.
They gaze back lovingly at the Earth, at the deserts of America, and the results of their ancestor’s first workings. The future origin myth for a race of interplanetary architect-machines.
(All quotations from Bruce Sterling, ‘An Architect’s Wet-Cement Dream’ in *Wired*, Feb 2005).