Tea, Earl Grey, hot. Those are the words spoken by Capt. Picard to the computer when he wants his favorite beverage replicated. While we're still a long ways away from that becoming reality, we're taking steps toward it.
NASA will be taking that step when it takes a 3D printer up to the International Space Station in June 2014.
NASA astronaut Timothy "TJ" Creamer made the science fiction reference, saying, "3D printing provides us with the ability to do our own Star Trek right there on the spot."
This will prove hugely valuable for the ISS so that replacement parts can be fabricated there without having to rely on spares, backup systems, or a shipment from Earth. Spare part blueprints can be preloaded on the printer, or can even be uploaded from ground support.
Not just any 3D printer can be used in space, as the one destined for the ISS – designed by a company called Made in Space – had to be tested on zero-G parabolic flights in order to verify that it would work in microgravity.
It's interesting to note that NASA isn't just working on 3D printed plastic parts, as it's invested in pizza replication technology.