Working while Fangirling*: San Diego Comic-Con and 3-D Printing in Aerospace

October 12, 2016 | Author: Esther Massimini

As a devoted fan of all things science fiction and the future, I’ve attended “Comic Con” conventions for many years and usually find some space- and aerospace-related content. This year, I attended three: Silicon Valley Comic Con, Phoenix Comicon, and San Diego Comic-Con™, the “granddaddy of them all.” What I’ve learned and who I’ve met may surprise you. This year, I chatted with Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, and met Adam Savage, formerly of “Mythbusters.” I also marched the halls of the San Diego Convention Center with U.S. Civil Rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis in celebration of his graphic novels about the 1965 civil rights march.

2016 is a very special year for science fiction: the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. This series, in all its incarnations, inspired many technological advances. NASA and other scientific organizations have presented panels at several Comic Cons throughout the year. A partial list of engineering/science-related panels at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con shows the variety of this emphasis on “science fiction and fantasy made real:”

  • Fiction vs. Reality: An Investigation of Science in Movies
  • State of the Holodeck
  • Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security in the Entertainment Industry
  • Science, Smithsonian And Star Trek
  • Turning Science Fiction Into Science Fact
  • No Tow Trucks Beyond Mars

I took some time out from fangirling to attend some of these panels. “Turning Science Fiction into Science Fact” was an intriguing panel conducted as an interactive workshop. Technology and aerospace professionals demonstrated the application of discoveries previously thought to be fiction. The Director of the NASA Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey, Calif., highlighted new science programs and the CTO of Deezemaker showed us 3-D printing applications in aerospace.

Dr. Richard Shope, of the Aerospace Legacy Foundation as well as a NASA engineer, demonstrated the value of project-based learning. To enhance the workshop experience, an SMS-bot (a computer program that texts “like a human”) live-streamed questions to panelists.

I found this workshop insightful for several reasons. The panel demonstrated how 3-D printing is turning science fiction into reality. At Honeywell, we’re already familiar with 3-D printing applications. But there’s more. Take the ability to grow food, usually envisioned as some sort of greenhouse on a huge space station or ship; the Star Trek “replicator” is one familiar pop culture exception. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, a replicator cooks and serves up food. (Who can forget the words of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Capt. Jean-Luc Picard as he ordered his favorite beverage by voice command: “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot?”)

The only way this is feasible is if the food can somehow be “created.” Enter 3-D printing! Earlier this year at Silicon Valley Comic Con, I enjoyed munching on pancakes that were 3-D printed to order in the shape of my choice! That printer is now commercially available at under $300. We’re not far from such printers being able to work with a variety of substances, not just pancake batter.

3-D printing also drastically will reduce the need to bring “spare” parts into space as many parts can be replicated when needed. This concept fed into another interesting panel: “No Tow Trucks Beyond Mars.”

As consumers, we are used to convenient repair facilities should our vehicles encounter a problem. However, in space, the concept of tow trucks don’t apply. (Apollo XIII!) At San Diego Comic-Con, members of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory reminisced about various failures they’ve experienced in their work. They discussed how humans proceed when there's no one around to fix things. We heard stories from the trenches, about the close calls and narrow escape adventures of real-life solar system explorers.

After the panelists shared career anecdotes, the audience learned it’s important to anticipate problems and to safeguard against them. In that respect, backup and redundant systems remain time-honored mechanisms. That is something that many Honeywell products in the cockpit have stressed: fault redundancy! With the expansion of printing to the 3-D world, one day we will no longer have to worry about carrying things like a variety of food and spare parts and materials into space. We’ll be able to replicate what we need when it is needed, and eventually only need to bring along the “ink”—the materials used by 3-D printers.

So, the next time a Comic Con happens in your city, check out some of the technical panels. Who knows, you, too, may find yourself thinking about aerospace-related activities while you “fanboy” or “fangirl!” And you can learn something new while having fun!

* Fangirling: (Of a female fan) behave in an obsessive or overexcited way: 
    I’m still fangirling over this casting. (Oxford Dictionary)
    (Use Fanboy for a male…)
Esther Massimini

Esther Massimini

Esther Massimini is a Principal Engineer in the Flight Management Systems Center of Excellence with Honeywell Aerospace. She has been with Honeywell for over 29 years and also has worked in the Software Center of Excellence and Computer-Aided Engineering. Before joining Honeywell, she was a Senior Engineer at Motorola and served as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. Esther has a master’s degree in Operations Research from the George Washington University (GWU) School of Engineering and Applied Science, and also holds a certificate in Program Management from GWU’s School of Business. Her undergraduate degree is from Oberlin College, where she majored in Mathematics and History. She is a member of the Society of Women Engineers and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. She is also Green Belt and Design for Six Sigma certified.

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