NASA Ames unveiled a little computer-operated machine that can manufacture spare spacecraft parts in space, including the parts astronauts needed as they faced death from asphyxiation aboard Apollo 13.
The three-dimensional printer would have been appreciated by Apollo 13 astronauts James Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise, who scrambled to jury-rig an apparatus that would allow them to continue to breathe after an oxygen tank explosion during the April 1970 mission. The 3-D printer, manufactured by NASA Ames partner Made-In Space and tested in zero-gravity, could have manufactured the needed parts on the spot. In fact, its young designers have done just that, as a way to prove its usefulness.
It turns out that 30 percent of the International Space Station's parts can be made with a 3-D printer, which saves precious weight by not having spares, while another machine recycles plastic materials into the feedstock material the 3-D printer uses, saving even more weight.
The 3-D printer was presented during a visit by Congressman Mike Honda and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who also spoke to journalists about the importance of funding NASA and highlight the sort of programs hurt by sequestration.
Also presented was "the cheapest satellite ever flown by humanity" -- a project of NASA Ames called Phonesat, which uses a reprogrammed Android smartphone as its main component. It recently returned from its first flight into space, its data card surviving an accidental crash landing to earth.
The Phonesat project was the brainchild of the head of NASA Ames engineering department, who "kept taking this phone out of his pocket and saying, 'This is almost everything you need to for a satellite,'" said Oriol Tintore, a young aerospace engineer with NASA Ames. The tiny satellite is not much bigger than a Rubik's cube.
Phonesat I costs $3,800 and can take pictures from space and send limited data through a radio beacon. It sent images of Earth to amateur radio operators around the globe after it was launched on April 21 on the Antares Rocket.
Then there is Phonesat II, which includes a two-way radio to allow it to be controlled from the ground as "a completely functional satellite bus" -- and costs $7,800. Getting them into space costs a bit more, however over $70,000, though there are several private companies are promising to make it more affordable.
"If we could just get the cost of launch per pound down, then we'd be OK," Bolden said.
Sarah Hovsepian, a graduate from the Massachsetts Institute of Technology, stole the show with a tour of the NASA Spaceshop, where computer-operated 3-D printers, laser cutters and milling machines allow computer-aided designs to be rapidly turned into objects.
Hovsepian was prodded by Honda about her background and why a woman would join the Spaceshop.
"Yes, I get this question all the time, they say, 'Are you going to make our spaceships pretty or something?'" she said.
She said she was motivated by a desire to "think outside the box" and to prove people wrong who say "you can't do that. The lesson is, to take risks."
Bolden said NASA fellows like Hovsepian would be among those to lose out under automatic budget cuts referred to as sequestration.
Hovsepian is a NASA technology fellow, and "those programs are in jeopardy if we have to live under sequestration," Bolden said.
"We're playing politics at the expense of our young people," Honda added.
"Congress needs to understand that if we don't fund NASA," the innovative work "young people showed us today won't be possible," he said.