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Space.com interviewed NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman, headed for the International Space Station in May, 2014, Wiseman expressed excitement about using a 3d printer that will be installed on the ISS for testing. NASA is very interested in aerospace 3d printing to enable astronauts to make spare parts and other things that might be needed on space stations or on long term deep space missions.
Wiseman posed an interesting counterfactual question: what if the crew of Apollo 13 had a 3d printer on board?
The flight of Apollo 13 was a mission to the moon that took place in April, 1970. When an oxygen tank exploded midflight, crippling the command and service modules, the three man crew was forced to use the lunar module as a kind of life boat while the spacecraft whipped around the moon and then returned to Earth.
A problem arose because the lunar module was only designed to sustain two crew members for two days and not three crew members for nearly a week. The lunar module’s carbon dioxide scrubbers began to fail, threatening the crew with asphyxiation. The CO2 scrubbers in the command module was of a different design than those in the lunar module. The crew was forced to adapt the command module CO2 scrubber cartridges to the lunar module scrubbers, in effect figuring out how to make square pegs fit in round holes.
With a little ingenuity from Mission Control, the crew of Apollo 13 succeeded with materials at hand and return home safely. Wiseman’s point was that the task would have been far easier and less dramatic in the Ron Howard film if the crew had access to a 3d printer to make custom parts to enable the adaptation. It is in emergencies like Apollo 13 that a 3d printer will really prove its worth.