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.