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Can 3-D printers help mankind colonize space?

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CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - SEPTEMBER 21: The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon supply ship lifts off from the launch pad on a resupply mission to the International Space Station, on September 21, 2014 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The private spaceflight rocket is delivering a cargo capsule to the International Space Station. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is looking at launching 3-D printers into space that would be used to print parts and equipment that could ultimately help mankind colonize space.

White House Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation Tom Kalil wrote Tuesday that NASA is working on "printable spacecraft" and using robots to assemble equipment from 3-D printed parts in space, and has already sent the first 3-D printer to the International Space Station.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Dragon supply ship lifts off from the launch pad on a resupply mission to the International Space Station, on September 21, 2014 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA believes the future of space exploration may depend on the ability to use 3-D printers in space to make parts and equipment, which is more economical than using equipment built on Earth. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

"One day, astronauts may be able to print replacement parts on long-distance missions," he said.

NASA on Tuesday outlined a series of experiments it's doing to test 3-D printing in space, and said so far it's clear that 3-D printing works.

"Testing a 3-D printer using relatively low-temperature plastic feedstock on the International Space Station is the first step towards establishing an on-demand machine shop in space, a critical enabling component for deep-space crewed missions and in-space manufacturing," NASA said.

Using 3-D printers to make parts and equipment could be a key to deeper space exploration, as it is far more costly to make things on Earth and launch them into space. Kalil spoke with Dr. Phillip Metzger, a former research physicist at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, who said the colonization of space won't be able to happen until mankind figures out a way to end its reliance on Earth-bound raw materials.

"Launching everything we need from Earth is too expensive," Metzger said. "It would also be too expensive to send all of the factories required to manufacture everything necessary to support a solar system civilization."

"We need to invent simple methods of manufacturing motors for robots that are just good enough, and simple processes to prepare usable metal as a feedstock for 3D printing beginning with the raw materials from asteroids or the Moon," he said.

Metzger imagines running tests on Earth first, such as sending robots to a volcanic deposit or a desert to see if robot miners can gather the basic materials that could be fed into a 3-D printer that would then make spare parts for equipment.

Once those tests can be run successfully, it could allow those printers and robots to be sent to certain resources in space. "This will be the rudimentary beginnings of a supply chain," he said.

Kalil called it "bootstrapping a solar system civilization."

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