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3D printer heading to space could enable lunar exploration

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station will soon have a new high-tech tool at their disposal. CNET's Sumi Das visits Made In Space, the startup that's developed a 3D printer which works in microgravity, allowing crews to print tools, parts and more on demand.

Unless you're a serious space nerd, you probably haven't been following the various rockets and spacecraft that SpaceX has launched since its first historic mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2012. But there's good reason to pay attention to the SpaceX CRS-4 mission, which may also go down in the record books. Just as it did on that inaugural flight to the ISS, the Dragon spacecraft will carry supplies, but this time the payload includes some crucial cargo - a 3D printer that works in space.

Watch our CNET News video to find out how a Silicon Valley startup designed a printer that works in zero gravity.

Now playing: Watch this: First 3D printer that works in zero gravity set to launch

Since 2010, Made In Space has been tinkering away on the groundbreaking hardware. During an interview at the company's offices at the NASA Ames Research Park, CEO and co-founder Aaron Kemmer stressed the significance of sending an additive manufacturing device to space.

"We've been building tools for thousands of years. This is the first time that it's not happening down here, but up there [in space]. That's paradigm shifting," said Kemmer, "We can actually leave planet Earth if we can start doing this more and more, if we start living off the land, building there, getting independent from planet Earth, rather than being completely dependent."

Made In Space is shooting for the moon, in more ways than one. It's already working towards utilizing the resources on hand to avoid needing to launch feedstock (such as ABS or PLA filament) for the 3D printers. R3DO, another Made In Space project, is a recycler that reuses 3D printed objects that are either no longer useful or broken to create new 3D prints. That could reduce space waste, but Made In Space has an even more ambitious idea: to print objects using regolith. Ever looked at a photo of the moon? It's the powdery substance that covers much of the surface - part soil, part dust, part ground rock. When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, he left his footprints in regolith. Kemmer says the material could be used "almost as concrete to build housing structures and roads."

With the ability to create objects on-demand, 3D printers have already been lauded as an alternative to traditional manufacturing and shipping methods which are costly and time-consuming.

"3D printing really has the capability to disrupt that. In space it's ten times, even a hundred times harder," Kemmer explains, "Because you have to have rockets in the equation and they are very dangerous and very expensive."

Kemmer tantalizes my inner space nerd with another scenario, "[You can] digitally send the files that you want [to space], build it there within minutes to hours, rather than waiting months years."

The technology isn't there yet. The Made in Space printer that arrives on the ISS in the coming days, will first print basic objects and test them for qualities like strength and flexibility. If those tests are successful, we can expect that astronauts will next print tools and replacement parts. And if you're having a hard time imagining how that might be useful, may I suggest brushing up on your Apollo 13 history.