Oct 27, 2015 | By Kira

Without a doubt, at some point in our lives, almost every single one of us has gazed up at the nighttime sky and been amazed at the vastness and beauty of the galaxy before us. For some, that sense of wonder and inspiration led them to become leading astronauts, physicists or astronomers, dedicated to exploring the wonders of the Universe and bringing them down to Earth. Yet imagine if you weren’t able to see the stars in the first place, as is the case for visually impaired children, students, and adults around the world. Imagine the missed opportunities, the lost insights that could be contributing to our knowledge, understanding, and discovery of the Universe, simply because a part of our population could not share the same experience and wonder that so many of us have.

To solve this problem and literally bring the Universe into the hands of the visually impaired, a team of scientists and educators from NASA and universities from around the world has developed a program that will use 3D printing to teach astronomy and astrophysics in everyday classrooms. The project aims to “develop a long-term and sustainable solution for bringing visually impaired students the wonders of the Universe, motivating them to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).”

So far, the project has overseen the development a set of 3D printable stereolithography files of astronomical objects, which will be coupled with lesson plans, at various grade levels, prepared for delivery online and integration into classrooms. They foresee the 3D printed models providing qualitative feedback, giving visually impaired students the kind of understanding sighted students normally gain through images and videos. So far, they have already created the world’s first 3D printable nebula and the first 3D printable results from a supercomputer simulation of an astrophysical system.

To ensure that the program is as affordable, accessible, and sustainable as possible, the developers are experimenting with various 3D printing materials to create durable models that can stand up to constant handling. They have also teamed up with 3D printing services WhiteClouds and Shapeways, who have agreed to 3D print the final models to be disseminated to schools worldwide at a significant discount. Schools can opt to receive donated 3D printed models, or if they have access to local 3D printers, download the STL files for free and print them themselves.

The team of developers is a veritable who’s-who of brilliant scientific minds: there’s team leader Dr. Thomas Madura, theoretical astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; Dr. Wanda Diaz-Merced, a blind professional astrophysicist; Dave Dooling, Director of Education at the New Mexico Museum of Space History; Dr. Theodore Gull, retired NASA astrophysicist; and Dr. Wolfgang Steffen, professor and professional astrophysicist at UNAM, just to name a few.

Currently, however, the NASA-affiliated program requires funding—$15,000 for the first phase of the project, which will go towards the initial 3D prints, lesson plans and studies and will be tested in a minimum of six to seven schools: three in the United States, one or two in Mexico, and one or two in Europe. Development of more activities and outreach to more schools is possible if they surpass the initial funding goal.

Given that NASA’s budget for the past few years is at its lowest since the founding of the agency, they are turning to the public for help, and offering some pretty unique perks (including a 3D printed nebula for just $80, a 3D printed binary star system for $1,000, and an actual meet-and-greet with a NASA astrophysicist for $10,000) to sweeten the deal. Those who are unable to contribute financially can still do their part: if you have access to a suitable 3D printer, you can print the 3D astro models and donate them directly to local schools or museums.

Dr. Thomas Madura, leader of the '3D Print the Universe' Project

With or without the rewards, this is a first-of-its-kind project that utilizes 3D printing to reveal the wonders of the universe to the visually impaired, encouraging them to pursue careers in STEM, and potentially uncovering a wealth of un-tapped opportunities, ideas, and discoveries that could contribute to mankind’s knowledge of outer space. You can learn more about the project and contribute here.

“We believe that no one should miss out on the marvels of the Universe or be discouraged from pursuing science because of a visual impairment,” said the team. “While it will be challenging, great scientists and educators are not known to back down from a challenge, especially when supported by the public.”



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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