Posts Tagged 3-D printing

Constant Tech: Mobile Factories

I had an old feature on this blog called Capsule Tech, back when I was writing a novel called Capsule, that was meant to show my work in a way. It brought together real life tech that I was using as springboards for the circa 2070s tech I was using in that novel. Well, now that Capsule is on the back burner until I manager to rip it apart into two novels, the feature is now Constant Tech, little bits and pieces of tech that fit with the Sarah Constant series. I’m going to retcon this post about people signing up for a one-way space trip as the first bit of Constant Tech.

There’s a problem with going out into space on a one-way mission: you’ve got no choice but to bring everything you need with you. That includes the things that you know you’ll need and the things you don’t know you’ll need. The first is easy, the second…causes problems. Mars One could be resupplied from earth, but what about a generation ship barreling out of the solar system? What do they do when they discover an unaddressed need fifty years down the road when you’re 2.5 light years from earth?

The military, specifically the Navy, is looking at this question. Not from a perspective of a one-way trip, more from a perspective of readiness. According to the Armed Forced Journal (ht: Gizmodo), the Navy is considering whether three-dimensional printing is the future of readiness.

As Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Neil Gershenfeld puts it, the revolutionary aspect of 3-D printing is that it allows us to make things into data and data back into things. For the Navy, the technology promises to shift inventory from the physical world to the digital one. Instead of actual parts, a ship might carry 3-D printers and bags of various powdered ingredients, and simply download the design files needed to print items as necessary.

But is this really a new idea when applied to space travel? Captain Picard walks up to a hole in the wall, says “tea, Earl Gray, hot,” and enjoys a tasty beverage. It’s assembled molecule-by-molecule in a process similar to matter transportation, but that assembles spare matter into a desired form rather than moving the bits of a human being from one place to another. Perhaps it could be seen as an abstraction of 3-D printing, but that’s not how it’s portrayed. Instead, whenever it’s technobabbled, the replicators are an abstraction of transporter technology, which itself is likely to remain illusive.

Three dimensional printing, however, is already a reality. It’s expensive, but it’s available today. Abstracting that into the future of not matter replication, but object assembly, feels more comfortable. Going forward, it’s likely to be essential tech for space exploration. Especially long-term exploration. The only problem becomes the raw resources fed into the printer to become the necessary items. What can we mine from the places we land? What raw resources to we need to take with us on our ships? How much of each kind? There’s still the potential problem of what you don’t know you’ll need in terms of printables, but it’s a little easier to work out.

These are fun questions, but questions that we’ll need to answer one day.

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