0

3D printing will help us colonise the moon

When I was a teenager, I read science fiction books by Harry Harrison about a thief-with-a-conscience called The Stainless Steel Rat.

Among the science fiction predictions embodied in the book were that the Stainless Steel Rat would speak the universal language of Esperanto (that didn’t work out so well) and that he would be able to get whatever equipment he wanted, whenever he wanted by using a gizmo that would create it from sand, rocks and other waste material in his vicinity.

(Actually, it was a big more specific than that: the gizmo scanned cool things like hovercars and mortars and paragliders and shrunk them down to 1% of their original size, leaving a pile of assorted debris. The Stainless Steel Rat would then carry these shrunken things in a bag or pocket. When he needed them full size again, the gizmo needed atoms to reconstitute the structure. Hence the need to shovel sand or rocks in it to provide the raw materials to grow the shrunken things 100x back to their original size.)

Oddly, this one looks as if it might be becoming true.

The BBC reports that scientists from Washington State University have invented a way to use a 3D printer to make stuff using moon rock.

OK, so the moon rock is simulated. Apparently the moon rock that we brought back to earth is an American national treasure, but NASA supplied the scientists with “simulated Moon rocks, or lunar regolith simulant, containing silicon, aluminium, calcium, iron and magnesium oxides.” They then built items up, layer on layer, with an additive 3D printer.

3D printing is still in its infancy. This picture of a Christmas tree decoration that my 4 year old son Alasdair was given at the Wired Pop-up store in Regent’s Street last week shows that the finish is still low quality. My wife commented that you wouldn’t pay 50p for it on a stall in a Christmas market.

To me, that’s not the point. The angel shows that we can make bespoke stuff from a file on a computer in front of our very eyes. The BBC story shows that one day we will be able to send astronauts to the moon with nothing but a 3D printer with which to build an entire colony.

As more and more use cases start to emerge for 3D printing, more and more clever people will start working on how to make it cheaper, more precise, or with better quality finished. We are still in very early days. I am very excited about the next 20 years.

Nicholas Lovell