3D Printing on Mars

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 5.09.00 AMFor the last two weeks of December, I was a participant in Crew 145 for the Mars Society.

The Mars Society works with entities like NASA and the Musk Foundation to prepare people for long-duration space missions, and to find and solve problems that might arise in such missions before they become dangerous. To this end, they have built two Mars simulation habitats, one in the cold desert of Utah and one in the Canadian arctic. They are building a third one in Iceland.

The simulation goes on 24/7 for two or four weeks (the Arctic habitat will host a year-long simulation next year). The Mars Desert Research Station is a cylinder-shaped structure intended to simulate a Martian lander, and can accommodate up to seven analog astronauts. Next to the structure is a greenhouse, which is currently being replaced with a semi-buried structure that is more accurate to what astronauts are expected to build on the real mission, and a small self-contained observatory. Food, water, electricity and bandwidth are rationed, with internet communications with “home base” being subject to a speed-of-light delay that varies between 6 and 20 minutes. Our rotation was relatively cushy, with 90 seconds of water per day for a shower – to be split between four crewmembers! The crew is given various problems to solve as outlined by each crew’s mission plan, plus of course the occasional issue that arises out of simulation like our water pump breaking and requiring replacement and, at one point, “McGyvering” a hand pump that could be operated with a spacesuit on.

Simulation parameters include:

  • A spacesuit must be donned in order to be outside the habitat. This spacesuit is only partially simulated: the ventilation system is essential to allow proper breathing, and prevent helmet fogging, and can be used to provide heat
  • Water and food are rationed according to what a recycling system might provide. There is a greenhouse with veggies that must be tended.
  • Communications with Earth are severely limited and include a speed-of-light delay.

Our crew’s stated mission was to conduct medical EVA simulations and to train laypeople in field surgery techniques, to this end, it consisted of two doctors (Susan Jewell, commander, and Julielynn Wong) and two non-doctors (Michal Czapski, physicist, and myself, engineer), the former training the latter. http://mdrs.marssociety.org/home/crew-145/final-mission-report

Due to a reduced crew (2 men, 2 women), integrating improvisation with the careful planning that goes into a space mission, even simulated, became important – a lesson learned from this mission was that despite half a century of experience in systematic planning, a long duration crew still needs a McGyver type. For this crew, I had the honor of being that person.

Among other things, we built a robotic stretcher that allows a 5kg rover to carry an injured astronaut to safety (in Martian gravity; in Earth gravity, a medical mannequin of the appropriate weight was used). This was accomplished by adapting a Renegade rover to carry a stretcher. The Renegade required a 3D printed camera mount that could be put in a corner of the stretcher to be teleoperated.

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Julielynn provided a consumer-grade 3D printer, which I adapted to run on solar power so we could stay within our electricity budget. Since this mission spanned the winter solstice, we were able to test the worst case scenario for operating such a device. [Exactly what kind of printer was it? It was a printer from a company that tried to patent open-source stuff and did other evil things. I will not give them publicity.]

The printer was intended to test custom-fit finger splints, and did its job. An all-in-one dental instrument used to replace teeth fillings, was designed by Julielynn Wong, and also tested.

Having a 3D printer, particularly one that was energy neutral, allowed quite a bit of “bonus science” to be done. Following the medical EVA, a design for an emergency scalpel was made by me. The design took 9 minutes, and the printing approximately 20. This tool allowed us to use a safety razor as a scalpel, and proved sufficient to cut flesh and be flame-sterilized if needed. Damage to one of the EVA packs prompted the creation of two replacement parts for it, a task which was accomplished in a morning, from design to printing to installation. (Within the simulation, the injured astronaut had a damaged EVA pack).

One important part of this sort of simulation mission is to put people of varied talents in an uncomfortable situation, so that they may apply creativity to it and develop new procedures. Among other things, Michal worked out a procedure to take excellent astronomy pictures with a standard DSLR.

Performing any sort of repair work while in a spacesuit is an exercise in frustration due to how clumsy the gloves are. To reduce this problem, and save precious time on EVAs, I was able to design and print a “claw” that fits on the spacesuit’s pinky finger, and lies flat when not in use. This claw restores a fingernail to the astronaut on EVA, which is invaluable for tasks such as opening rolls of duct tape, adjusting velcro strips, opening ziploc bags, and retrieving very small terrain samples.

[Photo of pieces of claw on the left. Photo of “claw” in action, on the right.]

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