(TNS) EDWARDS — The juniors and seniors in Dave Weber's bioengineering course learn the basics of 3-D printing in the classroom, where they create plastic objects one layer at a time from digital renderings.
What the students witnessed Friday at the Caterpillar Demonstration and Learning Center in Edwards, however, wasn't just an extension of the same 3-D printing principles they learn at Normal West High School into real-world situations.
It was almost equal parts industrial application and science fiction extrapolation.
Hundreds of area students visited the NASA 3-D-Printed Habitat Challenge at Caterpillar's facility to witness the development of today's technology into systems that could one day allow humans to inhabit another planet.
"In this class, when we learn the design process, we work with 3-D printers," Weber said. "This is a chance to learn about the possibilities of technology and making it large enough to create a habitat."
A handful of technology teams from across the United States and as far away as South Korea built custom 3-D printers for the NASA challenge. The goal is to design a system that can autonomously build structural elements using natural and recycled materials. Those pieces could then be assembled into habitable structures on the moon or Mars.
The team that creates the strongest structural elements within the guidelines of NASA's requirements for base materials similar to what would be found on the surface of another planet could win a $250,000 prize. A later phase of the challenge, which is a collaboration between NASA, Bradley University and Caterpillar, will see the printers themselves scaled up even larger to build bigger structures.
Tyler Dunn, an 18-year-old senior in the Normal West bioengineering class, said the use of "printing" material other than the plastic filament he uses in the classroom hadn't occurred to him before seeing the process in action on Friday.
"Just seeing the different types of materials made me think about the different types of structures we could build," Dunn said.
Also on display Friday were some of the elements the teams had printed for the NASA challenge. Some looked more refined than others, but Monsi Roman, the program manager for NASA's Centennial Challenges Program, said the competition did not take into account aesthetics.
"Some of these are so elegant, but it doesn't matter how they look if they can't pass the strength test," Roman said.
The challenge concludes Saturday with final tests of domes each team printed over the course of the last few days. NASA will live stream the event https://www.facebook.com/FollowNASA360/.
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