3D printer could hold key to sav­ing lives on Mars


The Mars Desert Re­search Sta­tion habi­tat, an iso­lated white pod in the ruddy Utah desert, is just eight me­tres wide and two storeys high. For weeks at a time, crews of up to seven peo­ple share the cramped space.

The sta­tion is a “space ana­logue fa­cil­ity” op­er­ated by the Mars So­ci­ety and de­signed to sim­u­late the rigours of an even­tual mis­sion to the real red planet. When “ana­logue astro­nauts” pack their bags for a stay, both space and weight are at a pre­mium.

But when Toronto doc­tor Julielynn Wong trav­elled to the habi­tat last De­cem­ber, her bag held a rather bulky item: a 3D printer. She wanted to test what tools can be fab­ri­cated on the fly to treat ill or in­jured astro­nauts.

“We can’t take all the sur­gi­cal sup­plies we want with us on a Mars mis­sion,” she ex­plains. With cur­rent tech­nol­ogy, a one-way rocket to the planet lasts eight months, and most sce­nar­ios for a hu­man ex­pe­di­tion span at least two years. Un­nec­es­sary sup­plies cre­ate un­wanted weight and miss­ing equip­ment can­not be sent for months.

“So the idea was, hey, why don’t I look at the med­i­cal in­ven­tory for space mis­sions and see what’s 3D printable — just try to con­vert ev­ery­thing from hard­ware into some­thing that’s vir­tual?” says Wong. She de­cided to power the de­vice with so­lar pan­els — a likely Mar­tian energy source.

Wong has al­ways had a deep love of space. Roberta Bon­dar was a child­hood hero. In med­i­cal school she won a schol­ar­ship to study at the In­ter­na­tional Space Univer­sity, and she com­pleted an aerospace medicine clerk­ship at NASA’s John­son Space Cen­ter in Hous­ton.

Then a stint at Sin­gu­lar­ity Univer­sity in Sil­i­con Val­ley piqued her in­ter­ested in 3D print­ing. Her class­mates in that pro­gram, where the goal is to use tech­nol­ogy to solve global chal­lenges, founded a com­pany called Made In Space.

In fall of 2014, Made In Space and NASA put the world’s first zero-grav­ity 3D printer on the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion. When as­tro­naut Butch Wil­more needed a ratchet wrench, in­stead of wait­ing for a re­sup­ply shut­tle, engi­neers on Earth de­signed a wrench dig­i­tally, up­linked the file to the ISS, and the printer fab­ri­cated the wrench in four hours. Next March, Made In Space is launch­ing a suc­ces­sor to their first printer. This time, the public can ap­ply to 3D print sci­en­tif­i­cally-rel­e­vant, NASA-ap­proved items. Wong is al­ready queued to be­come the first doc­tor to up­link a med­i­cal de­vice to space.

At the Mars Desert Re­search Sta­tion in Utah, Wong showed that a so­lar-pow­ered, off-the-shelf 3D printer could make three dif­fer­ent med­i­cal de­vices: a scalpel han­dle, a two-in-one den­tal tool and a fin­ger splint. She chose those items be­cause they treat com­mon com­plaints in space. Hand in­juries are fre­quent, for ex­am­ple, be­cause astro­nauts in mi­cro­grav­ity use their arms to pull them­selves rather than their legs to walk. But 3D print­ers can also be use­ful in the case of un­ex­pected crises, when the ap­pro­pri­ate sup­plies are not avail­able.

Inspired by what she dis­cov­ered at the re­search sta­tion, Wong, who has a de­gree in public health from Har­vard, re­al­ized that so­lar-pow­ered 3D print­ing could im­prove health care for com­mu­ni­ties on Earth that are re­mote or that don’t have ac­cess to elec­tric­ity. Her com­pany, 3D4MD, fo­cuses on both space medicine and ter­res­trial public health.

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