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During the aboriginal weeks of his 167-day assignment aboard the International Amplitude Abject in 2014, astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore noticed that a torque bend was missing. “It’s not aberrant for things to abandon in space,” he tells me over the buzz from the Johnson Amplitude Center in Houston. “You aloof don’t accept force befitting actuality in place.” Wilmore mentioned the missing apparatus to Nasa’s mission ascendancy as he was disposed to a 3D printer, a microwave-sized box that extrudes acrimonious bogus to body up altar band by layer, which was actuality activated on the amplitude station.

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About a anniversary later, Wilmore opened the aperture to the 3D printer to acquisition a absolute replica of his missing wrench. He was thrilled, a moment captured in a photo that was aggregate with the world’s media at the time. Until that point, the apparatus had produced alone actual simple objects. “This was a printed, all-embracing wrench, with a ratchet mechanism, that worked,” Wilmore says.

Unbeknown to the astronaut, the aggregation that advised and operated the 3D printer – a California-based aggregation alleged Fabricated In Amplitude – had been alert in on his chat with Nasa (a advantage for companies alive with the amplitude agency) and formed annular the alarm to architecture a adaptation of the apparatus that met Nasa’s accurate assurance requirements.

“Once Nasa accustomed the wrench, we beatific the book to the printer – about we emailed it to amplitude and hit print,” says Jason Dunn, Fabricated In Space’s co-founder and arch technology officer, sitting above the table in a appointment allowance at the company’s abode in Moffett Field, Santa Clara County. “I get goosebumps every time I anticipate about that story.”

For Dunn, that bend is allegorical of an absolutely new borderland in amplitude exploration, one in which his eight-year-old aggregation is a pioneer: accomplishment items in space, rather than relying alone on those altar you can acquisition allowance to backpack on a rocket from Earth.

“It’s a absolutely accurate adequacy that allows us as bodies to extend our ability above Earth,” he tells me. Supplying the 3D printer on the International Amplitude Abject was alone the start: the aggregation is developing systems for authoritative and accumulating not alone baby accoutrement and trinkets, but behemothic structures such as satellites and, eventually, alike amplitude colonies – houses on the apparent of the moon or Mars, or behemothic spaceships on which bodies could alive and work.

Dunn, 33, is sitting in a scruffy appointment allowance alleged The Bridge – a nod to the Brilliant Trek command centre – on the additional of two floors in a continued architecture that already served as billet for the US fleet and now houses best of Fabricated In Space’s 43 employees. It’s one of dozens of characterless white barrio dotted about Moffett Field in Mountain View, which was bankrupt as a aggressive abject in 1994 and angry over to Nasa for analysis purposes. The bureau leases barrio to altered avant-garde technology companies with whom it has analysis ties. From the outside, there’s no assurance of the catholic appetite bubbles up inside.

With his bristles and aphotic hair, swept to one side, Dunn looks like a decrepit Clark Kent. He traces his absorption in analysis aback to his adolescence in Florida. He lived by the Gulf of Mexico, breadth he and his accompany would absorb hours in a little baiter exploring mangroves and islands.

“I grew up with this allure with exploration,” he says. “This abstraction that I sit on the bank and I attending out and I can’t alike see the horizon, and I don’t apperceive what’s above it.”

Everyone on the planet sits on the bank of space. It’s this big ocean we should be exploring

That activity grew afterwards he watched the amplitude shuttle barrage from the adjacent Kennedy Amplitude Center at Cape Canaveral, seeing what looked like “a little star” affective up into the sky. “I bethink the allure of seeing that one brilliant and cerebration ‘There’s bodies on it, dematerialization into space’,” he says. “Everyone on the planet sits on the bank of space. It’s this big ocean we should be exploring,” he adds, with a cast of contemplative disappointment about the abridgement of progress.

For Dunn, alive at Nasa seemed inevitable: he was aggressive by his aerial academy physics teacher, who had been a finalist in a accumulation of agents alleged by Nasa. Later, he advised aerospace engineering at the University of Orlando, breadth he formed on the shuttle programme via an internship at Boeing, which was apprenticed by Nasa to body the spacecraft.

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Dunn was ardent of the eyes for the amplitude shuttle. Initially awash to the US Congress in the aboriginal 1970s as a reusable agent that would fly to amplitude on a accepted basis, it promised a abundant cheaper way of sending things there. This led scientists and engineers to anticipate creatively about what they could body if they weren’t bedridden by the prohibitive cost. “Once we accept bargain admission into and aback from space, again the industry changes and opens up,” Dunn explains.

But the amplitude shuttle did not fulfil this promise. It amount about $450m (£315m) every time it launched, so it didn’t fly about as frequently as proposed. In 2010, Nasa appear it was backward the programme, afterwards 30 years. “I acquainted a little crestfallen and actual confused,” Dunn says, “because the accomplished acumen I was accomplishing this was to assignment on the amplitude shuttle.”

Feeling lost, he angry to a college-based club alleged Students for the Analysis and Development of Space, breadth he met administrator Peter Diamandis, architect of the X Prize, a non-profit organisation that stages advantageous competitions to accolade teams who advance advance innovations. Dunn abstruse that he could actualize a startup in the amplitude industry. This seemed “ludicrous” at the time: to his mind, the amplitude industry was the bottle of nation states and behemothic companies such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

In the summer of 2010, Dunn confused to California to appear Singularity University, an educational programme and business incubator co-founded by Diamandis, which focuses on “exponential” technologies such as bogus intelligence and driverless cars. There, Dunn met two of his Fabricated In Amplitude co-founders – Mike Chen and Aaron Kemmer – and calm they spent 10 weeks researching the amplitude industry and account for a acceptable business; the fourth co-founder, arch architect Michael Snyder, abutting anon after.

The clandestine amplitude companies that allure the best absorption – Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Virgin Galactic or Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin – prioritise accomplishing the aboriginal affiance of the amplitude shuttle: authoritative admission to amplitude cheaper, by architecture reusable or above rockets. Dunn, Chen and Kemmer asked a altered question: “What if we didn’t charge to barrage annihilation at all?”

Asking that catechism meant they were no best belted to ambit of amplitude altar that could be arranged central a rocket and able to survive the shuddering armament of a barrage from Earth.

“We could accept structures in amplitude so big, they could be the courage of huge internet telecommunications antenna,” Dunn says. “Or a behemothic amplitude abject colony, or behemothic arrays of solar panels. Or we could accelerate robots to the apparent of the moon, or Mars, and use assets there to body habitats.”

Dunn predicts that, over the abutting 10 years, amplitude will become an automatic breadth abounding with orbiting factories. “Like oil platforms on the ocean, but not polluting.” There are already several companies – including Axiom Space, with which Fabricated In Amplitude has formed a partnership, and Bigelow Aerospace – architecture bartering amplitude stations that could abode accomplishment accessories in apogee aural a brace of years, Dunn notes. Eventually, he says, bodies will go to the factories in amplitude to assignment in abundant the aforementioned way as oil riggers do. “Although best of the accomplishment will be automated, you charge bodies to fix and advance the robots. It ability not be pretty, it ability not be that safe, but they will accomplish a acceptable active and again appear aback home.” Others will pay to go on “cruise ships”, either to apogee Earth or “do a nice week-long cruise about the moon”. Companies such as Blue Origin and SpaceX are authoritative “huge strides in carrying bodies into amplitude safely”.

The accord amid orbiting factories and barrage companies will be symbiotic. “They are absolutely aperture the borderland of space,” Dunn says. “We congenital our aggregation on the affiance of what they are creating; they are architecture their companies based on the accomplishment that Fabricated In Spaces will exist.” He is close-lipped about specific bartering relationships with the barrage companies, but says that his aggregation is “actively working” with some of them.

Over time, manufacturers will alpha to abide Earth’s orbit, starting at lower altitudes and alive their way out in concentric circles until they ability the moon. Fabricated In Amplitude is alike advancing for a lunar antecedents by developing “rego” bricks, fabricated by accumulation a appropriate polymer with apish moon dust (regolith). The bricks, which attending like samples of paving stones in assorted shades of grey, are abundant and feel plasticky. In theory, a brick-making free agent could use the dust on the apparent of the moon to assemble apartment advanced of astronauts’ arrival.

We are creating the technology of Brilliant Trek, architecture the replicator and agent all in one with 3D printers

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Before architecture colonies on the moon, Fabricated In Amplitude had aboriginal to advance a 3D printer that formed in microgravity and could be put on the International Amplitude Station. The printer is the company’s “foundational technology”, according to arch controlling Andrew Rush, 33, a above bookish acreage advocate who came on lath in 2015. He says he was “doomed to like amplitude from birth”, accepting additionally developed up in Florida with parents who aloft him on a diet of Brilliant Trek, science fiction biographer Robert Heinlein and physics books. Rush is one of abounding self-described sci-fi nerds at Fabricated In Space. During interviews for new recruits, he will ask: “Star Trek or Brilliant Wars?”

“It’s mostly for fun,” he says. “It’s absolutely a bit of a ability fit indicator.”

I ask if Fabricated In Amplitude is added Brilliant Trek or Brilliant Wars. He laughs, again hesitates, afraid to alienate an absolute association of abeyant recruits. “You will get me in trouble,” he says, afore conceding, “I anticipate I’d say we are added Brilliant Trek.” The life-sized agenda agent of Spock in the accession breadth is a bit of a giveaway. As are the affected posters on the bank by the stairs for 1960s episodes of sci-fi television alternation such as The Tholian Web and Mirror Mirror. “In Brilliant Trek, the technology and the aesthetics are generally added affective than in Brilliant Wars, which is added of an epic-driven anecdotal and universe,” Rush explains, abacus that “space is a aggregation sport”.

Dunn agrees: “We are creating the technology of Brilliant Trek, architecture the replicator and agent all in one with 3D printers.”

At first, the aggregation affected that Nasa already had a 3D printer on the amplitude station, but apparent that, although the bureau had experimented with the abstraction in the backward 1990s, it absitively that the press technology was too adolescent and the amplitude abject too baby at the time to accident it. However, already the amplitude abject expanded, Nasa appointed the US articulation a civic laboratory, agreeable companies, analysis institutions and government agencies to angle microgravity analysis projects. Fabricated In Amplitude flew out to the Marshall Amplitude Flight Center in Alabama, to angle the bartering abeyant for 3D press in space.

The botheration with approved 3D printers is that they are advised to assignment in gravity. Without that connected bottomward force, you accept to defended every belt, cog and caster – a few millimetres of adventitious movement wreaks calamity on the press mechanism, arch to bootless or wonky printing.

To ensure their 3D printer would assignment on the International Amplitude Station, the Fabricated In Amplitude aggregation spent abounding hours aboard a “vomit comet”, a adapted commuter jet that follows a rollercoaster trajectory, alms about 20 abnormal of airiness with every nosedive. The aggregation took their accessory on 10 such flights, anniversary abiding about two hours, during which they monitored how the 3D printer was performing. “The activity of aught force is absurd to explain,” Dunn explains. “It’s an absolutely new feeling. Alfresco of aback you’re an infant, you don’t absolutely accept absolutely new feelings.”

The aggregation additionally had to automate about every allotment of the agreement – the aggregate of able anti-nausea pills and the atypical awareness of amphibian meant human-made decisions were about impossible. Adjustments would be fabricated to the printer afterwards anniversary flight, until they assuredly absurd it on the 10th mission.

The printer was installed on the International Amplitude Abject in November 2014. The aboriginal affair it printed was a allotment for the printer: a bogus electronics awning about the admeasurement of a arena agenda with aloft diction that apprehend “Made In Space”. A ages later, it would book the missing torque wrench, which accent the abeyant of the technology to astronaut Barry Wilmore. “It’s activity to be a game-changer, or as we say in Tennessee, it’s a big accursed deal,” Wilmore tells me, although he adds that he wasn’t accustomed to use the bend because it had to be beatific aback to Earth for assessment.

In 2015, the aggregation was awarded the Amplitude Borderland Foundation’s Eyes To Reality award, which recognises outstanding accomplishment in space. (Previously, it was accustomed to SpaceX for the barrage of its reusable Falcon 1 rocket and to the Nasa Kepler Program for its bargain mission to acquisition planets alfresco of our solar system.)

Staff accomplish the game-changing printer from their own mission control, a baby appointment amplitude with two assignment stations, anniversary of them with three screens – some assuming alive video feeds from about the amplitude station, others anon attractive at what’s actuality printed. Fabricated In Amplitude will allocution to a Nasa burden communications administrator (a “Paycom”) in Houston, who will broadcast belletrist or instructions to the astronauts. On attenuate occasions, if there’s a complicated abstruse affair with one of the machines, Fabricated In Amplitude will acquaint anon with astronauts.

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***

Unlike best startups, decidedly in capital-intensive industries such as space, Fabricated In Amplitude has never taken any alien investment. The amount technologies of the business accept been adjourned through development affairs from Nasa and the Defense Avant-garde Analysis Projects Bureau (Darpa). Analysis groups and companies additionally pay Fabricated In Amplitude for time spent application its microgravity 3D printer. The money from this amount assignment allows the aggregation to analyze added out-there projects, such as architecture on the moon.

Made In Space’s best aggressive agreement is Archinaut, a robot-operated branch that would be placed in Earth’s apogee to body ample structures in space. If it pulls it off, it has the abeyant to radically transform the way satellites and amplitude telescopes are built, repaired and enhanced. Without accepting to anguish about applicable aggregate into a barrage rocket, these orbiting structures can be much, abundant bigger. And bigger agency better: bigger arrays of solar panels for powering missions into abysmal space; bigger amplitude telescopes for exploring the galaxies above our solar arrangement and bigger satellite-delivered internet casework on Earth. “You could accelerate a accessory the admeasurement of a baby refrigerator into orbit, again a apprentice would alpha to body it out,” Rush explains. “You could accomplish a 10m- to 15m-long antenna, the affectionate you usually get on a big honking 2,000kg satellite.”

To accomplish ample structures, Fabricated In Amplitude bare a 3D printer that could book off as continued an article as required. It managed it: there’s a 37m-long strut addition the breadth of the alley on the arena attic of its headquarters. “It’s above than the solar addition on the ISS,” Rush says (in February, it was awarded a Guinness World Record for actuality the world’s longest 3D-printed nonassembled piece).

The aggregation is additionally cerebration about the importing business, developing “space-enabled materials” – abstracts that can be bogus alone in microgravity, but which are bare on Earth. The aboriginal actual fabricated in this way was ZBLAN, a blazon of optical fibre that is structurally of college affection than annihilation that can be fabricated on Earth. Optical fibres, the claret argosy of the internet, are fabricated by heating bottle rods to melting temperature and cartoon them out until they are thinner than a animal hair. Aback that’s done on Earth, the altered densities of the abstracts beggarly they can crystallise with tiny defects. “When we abolish gravity, we acquiesce the bottle to crystallise in a compatible manner,” Dunn says. “Now you get a absolute bottle clear which allows ablaze to canyon through it with abundant added efficiency.”

ZBLAN is in aerial appeal from telecommunications companies atrocious to bear added bandwidth to their data-hungry customers. “Industries are affairs alien optical fibre at such a aerial cost,” Dunn says, “you can absolve aerial raw abstracts into space, authoritative it and bringing it back, and still accept a acknowledged business.”

With that in mind, Fabricated In Amplitude has developed a pilot branch independent central a metal box almost the admeasurement of a mini-fridge, which can aftermath a few kilometres of fibre per mission. So far, it’s alone been activated absolutely on the amplitude abject once, afore it was brought aback to Earth to appraise the affection of the fibre and abuse the system. This month, the apparatus is actuality installed a additional time, for added testing.

Our eyes and acuteness for what we can do in amplitude has consistently far outstripped what we’ve been able to do

Similarly, Archinaut has been activated alone on Earth, with abate structures congenital in exhaustion accommodation that simulate amplitude conditions. The company’s blatant videos of able automatic accoutrements accumulating satellites in apogee abide a science fiction. “People were autograph about travelling to the stars afore [Robert] Goddard had fabricated a liquid-fuelled rocket,” Rush says. “Our eyes and acuteness for what we can do in amplitude has consistently far outstripped what we’ve been able to do.”

If the amplitude industry develops according to Fabricated In Space’s plan – and that’s a big if – the ultimate aim is to advice body amplitude colonies the admeasurement of cities. For Dunn, this is a necessity. “It’s not about abrogation Earth, but accretion and extenuative it,” he says, pointing out that there are not abundant assets on our planet to accord every being an according accepted of active to that enjoyed in abounding western nations: accepting a laptop, adaptable buzz and car. “There’s a absolute to how abundant activity assembly we can handle, how abundant CO2 we can accumulate putting into the atmosphere, how abundant aliment we can produce. The alone way those banned abandon is aback we anticipate above the abuttals of this bound aggregate of Earth.”

• Altar printed by Fabricated In Space’s zero-gravity 3D printer will be apparent during the V&A’s accessible exhibition The Future Starts Here, from 12 May; go to vam.ac.uk/thefuturestartshere for details.

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