You’re a space colonist. You’ve just embarked on a one-year journey to Jupiter’s moon Europa. It’s the adventure of a lifetime, you aspired to this, you trained for it, you got up the nerve to get on the space craft and now that you’re underway… you forgot your toothbrush.
I don’t watch much reality TV, but one show I’m addicted to is Discovery Channel’s Goldrush. If you’re not familiar with it, it follows a number of gold mining crews in the middle of nowhere Alaska and the Yukon who are trying to strike it rich. They truck up all their equipment, supplies, people and for the few short months of temperate weather they rush to get the gold. Then, just as they’re getting going, an electrical panel goes bad or a motor on the wash plant blows out and the entire operation grinds to a halt, wasting days, or even weeks, of precious time while they wait for a replacement to be shipped in. Now imagine that happening 500 million miles from the nearest electrical supply shop. FedEx doesn’t deliver to Jupiter.
There is one sure thing about doing anything in the middle of nowhere: crap will breakdown, get damaged or disappear in a blinding flash. You can plan for double or triple redundancy, but that costs money and, more importantly, weight. You can take along an extra couple motors for your planetary rover, but what happens if the u-joint fails and you didn’t plan for it? This is where I believe a future iteration of 3-D printing will be essential. Pull up the CAD drawing of the rover’s u-joint, send it to the 3-D printer, drop in some stock steel, have a cup of coffee and voila! Your rover is working again.
Now look even further into the future. Mankind is not just colonizing other worlds, we’re settling them. Even with 3-D printing, shipping the stock material necessary to build all the living quarters, equipment, daily essentials, etc. would get pretty pricey. So instead, you send mining, extraction and refining equipment, harvest the new world for raw materials and use the printer to fabricate anything you need. All you send on the settlement ship are the people and materials you can’t make from resources already there. It dramatically simplifies the endeavor and makes it significantly less expensive to pull off.
Where we might be a long way from walking to a panel in the wall and watching a steaming hot cup of Earl Grey tea appear before our eyes, the concept of buiding the vast majority of what we’d need to survive on a world hundreds of millions of miles away from resources already there is beginning to look like it’s within our reach.
Photo is a composite of multiple images courtesy of NASA.