First Ever 3-D Printed 'Tool' Fabricated in Space

Could this signal the start of a revolution in 3-D printed products and transform how we manufacture stuff in a microgravity environment? Possibly.

Could this signal the start of a revolution in 3-D printed products and transform how we manufacture stuff in a microgravity environment? Possibly.

On Nov. 17, NASA astronaut and Expedition 42 Commander Barry "Butch" Wilmore installed the first 3-D printer to be operated in space and conducted its first calibration test print. On Monday (Nov. 24), the printer produced its first component on the International Space Station (ISS) after commands were sent from ground control.

ANALYSIS: Print Me Up, Scotty! 3-D Printer Ready for Launch

Delivered in September to the orbiting outpost by a SpaceX resupply mission, the Made In Space printer constructed a piece of hardware that acts as a functional part of the printer itself - a faceplate for the printer's extruder printhead with the "Made In Space" and "NASA" logos embossed (pictured above).

The 3-D printer uses a process known as additive manufacturing "to heat a relatively low-temperature plastic filament and extrude it one layer at a time to build the part defined in the design file sent to the machine," writes NASA.

This is a significant event as the faceplate is the first tool (or, at least, tool component) that has been manufactured, from scratch, off Earth.

ANALYSIS: Made In Space? 3-D Printer Fit for Microgravity

"When the first human fashioned a tool from a rock, it couldn't have been conceived that one day we'd be replicating the same fundamental idea in space," said Aaron Kemmer, CEO of Made In Space, Inc., in a company press release. "We look at the operation of the 3-D printer as a transformative moment, not just for space development, but for the capability of our species to live away from Earth."

The faceplate may be more of a symbolic first-run, but plans are afoot to use the printer to manufacture more components for use on board the space station, an asset that could prove to be extremely valuable for current and future spaceflight endeavors.

ANALYSIS: Print Me a Condo on the Moon!

Until now, all tools and equipment for use aboard the ISS are manufactured on Earth. Often, this means costly and lengthy delays in getting the space station crew the tools they need. Using a 3-D printer, many of these components can be produced within hours of establishing a need for that tool.

Just imagine if the Apollo 13 crew had had access to a 3-D printer during their transit to the moon in 1970. After the oxygen tanks exploded, rendering the lunar landing an impossibility, issues with scrubbing carbon dioxide from the air inside the spacecraft were exacerbated by incompatible lunar module (LM) and command module (CM) filters. The stunning ingenuity of NASA engineers saved the day - they, basically, found a way to fit a square peg into a round hole. But a 3-D printer, if the technology had existed five decades ago, could have been used to quickly build an adapter.

ANALYSIS: 3-D Printed Pizza to Feed Mars Colonists?

Though this is a fanciful and purely hypothetical example, it shows that the rapid fabrication of products in space could be mission critical as not all events in space can be predicted months in advance on the ground. Designs are beamed up to the ISS and the printer gets to work. As 3-D printing technology evolves, more complex components will be possible within shorter and shorter time frames.

"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."

Now that the printer is up and running, test coupons and parts will be fabricated and returned to Earth so they can be validated and quality evaluated against similar products produced on the ground. Already, after this initial run, differences in 3-D printed microgravity products with their terrestrial counterparts are being noticed.

"This is the first time we've ever used a 3-D printer in space, and we are learning, even from these initial operations," said Niki Werkheiser, project manager for the ISS 3-D Printer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "As we print more parts we'll be able to learn whether some of the effects we are seeing are caused by microgravity or just part of the normal fine-tuning process for printing. When we get the parts back on Earth, we'll be able to do a more detailed analysis to find out how they compare to parts printed on Earth."

ANALYSIS: Asteroid Mining: Booming 21st Century Gold Rush?

"In 1957, Sputnik became the first man-made object in space and, 12 years later, that led to humans setting foot on the moon," added Kemmer. "Now, in 2014, we've taken another significant step forward - we've started operating a machine that will lead us to continual manufacturing in space. Decades from now, people will look back to this event ... it will be seen as the moment when the paradigm of how we get hardware to space changed.

In the future, when humanity begins to colonize other worlds, like Mars, self-sufficiency in manufacturing will be an important factor for any aspiring colony. This space station experiment could therefore be the very first step in realizing some of our loftiest space exploration dreams.

Sources: NASA, Made In Space