MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. — NASA is preparing to launch a 3-D printer into space next year, a toaster-size game changer that greatly reduces the need for astronauts to load up with every tool, spare part, or supply they might need.
The printers would serve as a flying factory of infinite designs, creating objects by extruding layer upon layer of plastic from long strands coiled around large spools. Doctors use them to make replacement joints, and artists use them to build exquisite jewelry.
In NASA labs, engineers are 3-D printing small satellites that could shoot out of the Space Station and transmit data to earth, as well as replacement parts and rocket pieces that can survive extreme temperatures.
‘‘Any time we realize we can 3-D print something in space, it’s like Christmas,’’ said inventor Andrew Filo, a consultant on the NASA project. ‘‘You can get rid of concepts like rationing, scarce, or irreplaceable.’’
The upcoming mission is just a demonstration, though.
‘‘If you want to be adaptable, you have to be able to design and manufacture on the fly, and that’s where 3-D printing in space comes in,’’ said Dave Korsmeyer, director of engineering at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field.
For the first 3-D printer test, slated for fall 2014, NASA had more than a dozen machines to choose from, ranging from $300 desktop models to $500,000 warehouse builders.
All, however, were built for use on Earth, and space travel presented challenges, including microgravity, limited power, and variable temperatures. As a result, NASA hired the Silicon Valley start-up Made In Space to build something new.
Last week, Made In Space engineers tinkered with a sealed 3-D printer in a dust-free clean room, preparing the models for further pre-launch tests.
‘‘Safety has been one of our biggest concerns,’’ said strategic officer Michael Chen.
Sparks, breaks, and electric surges can have grave consequences in the space station.
NASA and foreign space agencies are pressing forward with 3-D printing. Mastering space manufacturing, along with finding and producing water and food on other planets, could lead to living in space.
Made In Space’s initial prints will be tests — small shapes to be studied for strength and accuracy.
They’re also discussing with NASA about what the first real piece that they should print will be.