Powerful you have become: a 3D-printed model of Star Wars' Yoda. Photo: Getty
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Made in space: Sending 3D printers into orbit

The ESA wants to test a 3D printer in orbit because this is likely to be the best place and method of building the equipment that will take us further out.

Samantha Cristoforetti is about to enjoy a trip to space. Formerly a fighter pilot in the Italian air force, the 37-year-old Cristoforetti is now a European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut. She will blast off with two others, a Russian and an American, in a Russian Soyuz rocket on 23 November. After a few hours, the trio will arrive at the International Space Station (ISS). We can say this with confidence because people have beenS making this trip for very long. This month marks the 14th year of human life in space.

We’re not stopping at the space station, though. One of Cristoforetti’s tasks will be to test the ESA’s new 3D printer, a means to creating future space technology in orbit.

The development of 3D printing is another quiet revolution in progress. Just like a standard inkjet printer for paper documents, it places microscopic drops on to a surface – but these drops are molten plastic or metal. They solidify immediately and another drop can be placed on top of the first layer. Gradually, the drops build up to form an object created with extraordinary precision.

The ESA wants to test a 3D printer in orbit because this is likely to be the best place and method of building the equipment that will take us further out. On earth, firms such as Rolls-Royce are already making plans to use 3D printers to build parts for cars and aeroplanes. Recently, General Electric 3D-printed a fully functioning miniature jet engine. Nasa has created 3D-printed fuel injectors for its rocket engines. Airbus’s experiments with 3D printers have enabled the company to reduce the number of components in its fuel injectors from 250 to two. Manufacturing has never looked so easy – or so promising.

The next step is 3D printing in space. Cristoforetti’s task is to make sure the technology works in the near-absence of gravity. Molten materials form different-shaped drops in microgravity: without a strong pull towards the centre of our planet, they are almost perfect spheres and may not bond to the structure under construction in the same way as on earth. That would create weaker objects. This matters because the future of space colonisation is likely to depend on microgravity manufacturing of satellite parts, sensors, engines and even housing and storage facilities.

With 3D printers on the ISS, the residents can build whatever they need for their next step in space. At the least, this will reduce the payload problems on supply rockets. Although the materials that feed into the printer will have to be delivered, they’ll be in the form of pellets – much easier to pack, weight for weight, than a fully formed part for a satellite.

Once we have become used to it, 3D printing will be as mundane as printing out a high-resolution photograph is to most people now. Similarly, spacefaring was once a dream but is now routine. The world held its breath at the attempt to land a probe on a comet and Commander Chris Hadfield’s tweets and songs broadcast from space caught our attention for a moment but almost no one notices the ISS passing overhead. Even fewer give a moment’s thought to the human beings living up there.

So, we have colonised space. There was no fanfare, no spectacular jamboree. It required remarkable ingenuity, carefully paced progress and determination in the face of scepticism – for a long time, the ISS was described as a white elephant. In the end, though, our scientists, astronauts and engineers just quietly got on with the programme and, thanks to research by the likes of Cristoforetti, we will 3D-print our way to even greater heights. Our time confined to the planet has ended – not with a bang but with a printer. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

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Harry Potter and the Minotaur's Rage: how fanfiction got me into writing

My fanfiction was almost uniformly awful, like most of the things I did or liked when I was becoming myself.

The source of the noise was clear. Some kind of monster was emerging from the wood.

"Easy, Harry," counselled Hagrid, "Easy.”

Nervously, the bespectacled wizard approached the hulking beast cautiously. What was it? It had red leather skin, like a sofa, was bigger even than Hagrid and had a pair of cruel horns.

You may not recognise the above passage from any of JK Rowling’s seven entries in the Harry Potter franchise. That’s because it’s not by Rowling at all, but is taken from Harry Potter and the Minotaur’s Rage by awideyedwanderer, the alias under which I, with the addition and subtraction of a few dashes and underscores depending on the platform, wrote fanfiction from 2000 to 2006.

To deal with the obvious questions, no, it was not about the Labour party, and no, I don’t think anyone ever had sex, except perhaps very briefly towards the end of the story. (As such, it was a fairly accurate reflection on the life of its author during that period.)

Fanfiction often gets a bad rap, in my case deservedly. One former editor of the New Statesman used to say of one of his staffers that he was “the Fred West of prose”, and my fanfiction was not much better. I hacked my way through the universes of Harry Potter, Doctor Who, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Final Fantasy and Star Trek. I also perpetrated my own, highly derivative “original” fiction, featuring a character called Mr Jones who was basically Doctor Who with a gun.

My fanfiction was influenced by whatever novel I was reading and whatever the current state of my politics were, which meant that as the Noughties wore on it became increasingly dominated by thinly-veiled allegories for the excesses of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.

What got me started? Well, it’s all JK Rowling’s fault. I was an early adopter of the Harry Potter books, and though the first three books came out every year, there was a three-year-gap between The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix. So without a new book, Potter fans had to write their own, of which Harry Potter and the Minotaur’s Rage was one.

At this point in this sort of article, it’s usually customary to defend fanfiction by pointing out that some of it is actually very good, while some of it has made a great deal of money. My fanfiction was neither good nor financially lucrative, but I always think this misses the point a bit. Very few people think they are producing high art when they write fanfic – people are doing it to have a good time, to expand a world they’ve enjoyed.

My fanfiction was almost uniformly awful, like most of the things I did or liked when I was becoming myself. (In its defence, I think my fanfiction has aged better than Evanescence, who provided the soundtrack and most of the chapter titles to my fanfic.) But I had a great time writing it, and if nothing else, it taught me never to begin a sentence with “nervously” and end it with “cautiously”.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.