NASA and HP Inc Engineers Collaborate on a High-Tech Space Printer

Imagine being handed a project to create a printer that will work in space. Well, I was fortunate enough to travel to Johnson Space Center to meet the multi-disciplinary team of NASA and HP Inc engineers, who designed the HP Envy Zero Gravity Printer. While covering the story, I quickly learned that although we often focus on the blast-off of a NASA rocket, we aren’t always aware that the astronauts at the ISS (International Space Station) orbit space for up to six months while executing complex missions.

NASA Astronaut Donald Pettit explained that the launch is actually a very small portion of the overall mission. “It takes eight and half minutes to get into space, a couple of hours to dock and then you’re up there for six months.” While in space, an important part of the astronauts’ work is to conduct scientific and engineering experiments, and just like anyone in a busy office, they need a reliable printer.

The NASA/HP Partnership

Printers were on board for the first ISS missions launched in November 2000; however, over time these originals models became very outdated and unreliable. Since HP and NASA had previously collaborated on other projects, when NASA needed a new space printer they naturally teamed up with HP.

Enrique Lores, President of Imaging Printing and Solutions at HP, embraced the exciting project. “HP is a company of engineers. There is nothing that motivates engineers more than difficult technical challenges.”

On earth, we take for granted that printers work because of gravity. “For the ISS printer, one of the most challenging aspects was creating a printer for zero gravity,” explained Ronald Stephens, Manager of the Specialty Printing Systems Group at HP, who oversaw this project.  We expect that on earth a printer will create a neat pile of printed pages, but up in space, these same pieces of paper would just float up into the air.  This was one of the unexpected needs of the space printer, which Stephens and his team addressed, ultimately creating a special arm to keep the paper secure.

One of the other challenging aspects of this project was testing the printer. During the initial development, the engineers strategized potential problems through simulation. Then, when a prototype was available, they took it on special flights, which provided 20-25 seconds of zero gravity, so they could conduct quick experiments.

Why Take a Printer to Space?

The ISS is an orbiting laboratory about the size of a 5-6-bedroom house, where the crew lives and works. Although they are immersed in a high tech, digital world, astronauts still print about two reams of paper each month for technical and personal reasons. First, and foremost, if they experience any emergency situation, they must follow specific procedures. Since electronic equipment many be down, they print hard copies of all the emergency protocols into binders. Second, since the crew invests extensive time and effort into scientific research, they print hard copies of all their results, so there is no risk for loss.

Finally, on a more personal note, astronauts use the printer to print photos of their family and friends. “Pictures take on a new meaning when you don’t have contact with your family,” says Pettit.  Since astronauts spend six months at a time on the ISS, they often miss holidays, birthdays and other special occasions. When a family member uplinks a photo, it is a special treat for the crew member to be able to print out a photo and tack it up in their sleeping quarters—illustrating how human beings can connect with technology in powerful and meaningful ways.

Safety and Reliability

NASA is very selective on what it takes into space. As Petit explains in his “Tyranny of the Rocket Equation”, in order to generate speeds necessary for traveling into space, 85 percent of the rocket must be propellant, which leaves only 15 percent for the engines, technical gear, staff and cargo. Not only is the space very limited, but once the crew is in orbit, they receive replacement gear and supplies only once about every three months.  

Since there is so much invested in each rocket launch, Stephen Hunter, Manager of Computer Resources at the ISS Program, works closely with NASA engineers to ensure that all the hardware is fully safe and functional. He explained how they go through a tremendous number of environmental certifications. For this project, these ranged from making sure that the wireless function did not interfere with the general operation or experiments taking place on board the vessel, to conducting “destructive testing,” which ensured that the printer could withstand the powerful launch and blast-off.

Inspiring the Next Generation

With so much focus on STEM outreach and education for the next generation, the NASA/HP collaboration provides a motivating example for young, aspiring engineers. While many children dream of becoming an astronaut, only a few will actually make it into space. This multi-disciplinary team approach showcases how a dedicated group of engineers can support the space mission and perhaps illustrate how “getting to space” can be achieved… indirectly. Within this cutting-edge world of space and technology, as Lores aptly states it’s all about, “Making things that seem impossible, possible.”


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