When you think of a printer upgrade, you may not consider it to be a big task. But when you are on the International Space Station (ISS), it suddenly becomes a much bigger task than originally envisioned. The special conditions meant special challenges for the usually mundane hardware. This may be why the printers aboard the ISS have grown to be rather long in the tooth.
The printers that are now in service on the ISS had been in place since the early 2000s. Sure, the astronauts made do with it, but a printer upgrade was long overdue. The problem is that there is not exactly a handy electronics store that the astronauts can shuttle over to and pick up a new printer. And then there are the unique problems presented as a result of the unique conditions aboard the ISS.
For example, a printer aboard the ISS must be able to handle paper in a zero-gravity environment. Any printer upgrade must take this requirement into account since often printers use a gravity feed mechanism to help manage the paper feed. Even something as simple as loading the paper could be a challenge aboard the ISS. I am sure that you could imagine the difficulties if the paper would not simply lay in the tray as you slide it back into position.
Another potential problem with printing aboard the ISS is with ink waste. On a planet with normal gravity, any stray drops simply fall onto the page. In zero gravity, the drops could float around for a while, ending up in any number of unwanted places.
A printer upgrade aboard the ISS must also take into account how much power it uses. The ISS gathers most of its power from the sun via solar cell arrays, but any devices still need to be conservative with its power usage. Most consumer level printers are not very power efficient.
Finally, a printer upgrade on the ISS must be designed to be flame retardant. A printer uses electrically powered mechanical conveyances to handle the paper, and a bad jam or malfunction could pose the threat from an electrical fire. A fire aboard the ISS could be devastating.
So, with those requirements on the line, most people might think that NASA would hire a contractor to special build a custom printer device suited to life in outer space. But that was not what happened.
Instead, NASA contacted HP with their requirements, and HP had a recommendation for them – how about using the HP Envy 5600, a $129 commercially available printer? This all in one printer proved to be a great starting point for NASA’s needs. Of course, when you have to launch it into space you need to save every ounce you can, and as Stephen Hunter, Manager of International Space Station (ISS) Computer Resources, explains:
We removed the capability to do scanning, fax and copy out of it to reduce weight and remove glass portions
But there was one more modification that was required before the printer could be used in zero gravity. In the original product, the printer incorporates a gravity fed rod in the printer carriage. HP designed a new mechanical piece to allow it function properly in zero gravity. There were other modifications as well, including a custom 3D printed paper tray to allow proper operation aboard the ISS. In other words, the printer itself got a printer upgrade.
Since there is no real way to test the changes on earth, the modified printer was sent on a parabolic zero-g test flight to try out. And the unit performed flawlessly. Back on the ground, HP modified a total of 50 printers for the ISS to use, and each one is slated to last for 2 years. The printer upgrade won’t happen until a SpaceX resupply mission takes place in February 2018, at which time the first 2 printers will be put into service.
After all of that, it certainly seems that having a Best Buy or Office Max in orbit would have been very handy for the astronauts aboard the ISS. Who knows, maybe in time we’ll see such a thing. After all, it’s obvious that the market is already there.