History was made on November 24th at 9:28pm GMT, when the first 3D printer built to operate in space successfully made its first part on the International Space Station (ISS). This is the first time that hardware has been additively manufactured in space, as opposed to launching it from Earth.
Said Aaron Kemmer, CEO of Made In Space, Inc., “We look at the operation of the 3D printer as a transformative moment, not just for space development, but for the capability of our species to live away from Earth.”
The first part made in space is a part of the printer itself – a faceplate for its own extruder printhead. “This ‘First Print’ serves to demonstrate the potential of the technology to produce replacement parts on demand if a critical component fails in space,” said Jason Dunn, Chief Technical Officer for Made In Space.
Until this experiment, tools and parts have always been built on Earth and required a rocket to get to space. The presence of a 3D printer onboard the ISS will allow hardware designs to be made on Earth and then digitally beamed to the space station, where the physical object can be created in a matter of hours. “For the first time, it’s no longer true that rockets are the only way to send hardware to space,” said Mike Chen, Chief Strategy Officer for Made In Space.
The “3D Printing in Zero-Gravity Experiment” is a demonstration intended to learn about additive manufacturing processes in reduced gravity. The experiment is jointly conducted by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) and Made In Space, which designed and built the unique 3D printer for NASA through their Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. The printer was delivered to the ISS in September 2014, and on November 17th astronauts installed it in the station’s Microgravity Science Glovebox.
“This project demonstrates the basic fundamentals of useful manufacturing in space. The results of this experiment will serve as a stepping stone for significant future capabilities that will allow for the reduction of spare parts and mass on a spacecraft, which will change exploration mission architectures for the better,” said Mike Snyder, Director of R&D for Made In Space and Principal Investigator for this experiment. “Manufacturing components on demand will yield more efficient, more reliable, and less Earth dependent space programs in the near future.”
The initial phase of this science experiment will see a selection of test coupons, parts and tools printed to validate design, methodology and technology assumptions. Made In Space will print the same objects on their identical ground unit to provide a group of control prints. The ISS prints will be returned to Earth in a future return flight for the control prints and microgravity prints to be compared.
Once returned to Earth, the testing of the prints will provide data on a variety of factors, including tensile strength, torque, and flexibility. This information will allow the Made In Space team to make crucial adjustments to a second 3D printer, scheduled for delivery to the ISS in early 2015. This second printer will be an invaluable tool for astronauts and the government. It will also be available to commercial businesses and individuals on Earth to create on-demand hardware such as small satellites.
Following the initial printing phase, NASA and Made In Space will conduct additional ongoing experiments to further test aspects of additive manufacturing onboard ISS.
Made In Space