If you were looking to set up a geek trifecta, you could do worse than to combine 3D printing, drones and a mission to Mars.
Erika Rydberg, a Concord resident and 3D printing expert with the interesting job title of Digital Creation Technologist at Plymouth State University, will do that this spring when she joins Team 208 at a Utah site known as the Mars Desert Research Station.
There in the desert, the non-profit Mars Society has built a two-story structure that looks like the world’s largest bucket. It holds up to seven people for two weeks at a time and is designed to mimic the sort of living quarters that would hold people on Mars if we ever get there.
Like a similar Mars “habitat” run by NASA in Hawaii, the station is being used to test technologies and research systems, not to mention human interaction during long periods in confinement, to help prepare us for what would be a 2- to 3- year interplanetary mission.
The two-story habitat has a diameter of about 25 feet, meaning life inside will be tight. “Bunks, close quarters; it’s not going to be the most comfortable thing I’ve ever done,” Rydberg said. And getting a break won’t be easy; as part of the simulation, going outside will require wearing bulky “spacesuits.”
“I’ve been curious about space since I was a kid. My dad worked for the Department of Defense, and I met a female astronaut when I was 13 or 14 years old,” said Rydberg, 33. “I’m excited to participate in something that might help.”
Rydberg, who moved to New Hampshire three years ago from the D.C. area, learned of the Mars Desert Research Station in a roundabout way, after she started volunteering for something called Medical Makers. That’s a program to crowdsource technologies to solve specific medical problems in poorer, neglected or low-resource areas, often through 3D printing.
Mars is the ultimate low-resource site, so it makes sense that Medical Makers has gotten connected with the Mars Society. 3D printing to create items as needed is going to be an important part of long-term space missions – it’s already part of life on the International Space Station.
Rydberg has been working with 3D printing since she took it up while working with the Washington D.C. Public Library in 2013, and it’s a big part of her work at PSU.
And yes, 3D printing is still around, even if the hype has quieted.
“What you’re seeing now is there’s less talk because there’s more adaptation – for industry, for commercial uses, with advancement of materials science,” she said. “The hobbyist side of it has been figured out, to an extent, and there’s more manufacturing leverage being done. … Once the patents expired, people were able to experiment more.”
As an example of experimentation, she pointed to bioprinting, or printing out living tissue such as skin for use in medicine, which is going to be part of the biotech cluster developing in Manchester.
During her time with the Mars simulation, she will be testing 3D printing of medical devices and, more intriguingly, developing 3-D models of the surrounding terrain.
A drone racer named Zoe Stumbaugh will also be on the team; they’re going to try flying a drone, taking pictures, then using photogrammetry to create 3D models of the land around them. You can image explorers on Mars doing this as a way to prepare for long-term exploration trips – although flying a drone in the wispy Martian atmosphere will not be trivial.
All this is cool, but what about the whole idea of people going to Mars?
“I think it’s possible – it’s just whether or not we make the investment,” Rydberg added, pointing to the success of SpaceX flights. She adds, however, that she isn’t sure she would want to make the trip herself, depending on what she called a proper “risk analysis.”
“I am concerned about what would happen to the human body, based on how long it would take to get there,” she said.
I agree. In my youth, watching Neil Armstrong bounce around the moon on our black-and-white-TV, I couldn’t wait to see people living and working on Mars. These days I’m less certain: Radiation and long-term effects of microgravity seem much more of a health problem than science fiction ever assumed.
Furthermore, we are on Mars already. The U.S. has put four rovers on that planet, from Sojourner through the recently deceased Opportunity and the still-running Curiosity. We can even see photos taken from the surface of Mars on our phones, for crying out loud! I never dreamed of that while watching Apollo landings.
Maybe robots are enough.
But maybe not. And if we ever do decide to give it a shot, getting to Mars and back will take a lot of preparation.