Astronauts will 3D print part of a human knee in space

Bioprinting in orbit could help injured soldiers on Earth.

NASA/Roscosmos/Handout via Reuters

Bioprinted body parts could prove vital to future medical treatments, and scientists are going to great lengths to test it — in a very literal sense. NASA, Redwire and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences Center for Biotechnology (4DBio3) are sending a new 3D printer to the International Space Station, Redwire's BioFabrication Facility, to bioprint a human knee meniscus in orbit and study the result on Earth. Ideally, this will lead to treatments for the meniscal injuries that US soldiers all-too-frequently face.

Redwire hopes to 3D print whole organs in space, although it characterizes this as a "long-term" goal. The company is also using NASA's Advanced Plant Habitat for a project to identify genes for space-friendly plants. Another investigation will use a NASA furnace to create and demo passive cooling for electronics in low gravity.

The BFF printer will fly to the ISS aboard a supply rocket launching as soon as November 6th from NASA's Wallops Island spaceport. The mission will carry three extra payloads.

This isn't NASA's first spaceborne 3D printer. Last year, NASA carried a Redwire printer to the ISS to demonstrate printing lunar soil. That technology could one day help Moon colonists build habitats without carrying an abundance of supplies from Earth. The bioprinter is more immediately practical, of course. If the research pans out, doctors could replace damaged body parts without resorting to donations or inorganic implants.