At 1:52 AM on September 23, the Dragon Capsule perched atop the SpaceX CRS-4 launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and with it, the first 3D printer was off toward the International Space Station.
Part of the nearly 5,000 pounds of cargo, once the Dragon was docked to the International Space Station and the hatch was opened, astronauts had access to a 3D printer in space.
Sent aloft as part of an initiative by Made In Space, the delivery of this "machine shop for space" meant that, for the first time, astronauts had access to a multi-purpose manufacturing device to help them create parts, tools and emergency solutions on their missions.
Developed by Made In Space, Inc., under a contract with NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), this novel 3D printer is part of a technology demonstration the company says is intended to show that onsite, on-demand manufacturing will be a viable alternative to launching items from Earth.
Founded in 2010, Made In Space, Inc. has developed additive manufacturing technology for use in zero-gravity by constructing hardware that can build what is needed in space. The development team responsible for the project is made up of entrepreneurs, experienced space experts and key 3D printing developers. The project itself involved more than 30,000 hours of 3D printing tests and completed some 400+ parabolas of microgravity test flights to earn the proper clearance for the September launch.
"Everything that has ever been built for space has been built on the ground," said Aaron Kemmer, Chief Executive Officer of Made In Space. "Tremendous amounts of money and time have been spent to place even the simplest of items in space to aid exploration and development. This new capability will fundamentally change how the supply and development of space missions is looked at."
The Made in Space 3D printer will be installed in the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) on the space station where it will be used to conduct experiments leading to a series of prints. After creating test coupons, parts, tools, use case examples, the groundbreaking device will also be used to print STEM project designs by students as part of the 3D Printing in Zero-G Experiment.
The Made in Space printer will use an extrusion method specifically adapted for the challenges of the space environment and will be operated from a mission control ground station.
According to Kemmer, dozens of specific problems had to be solved in constructing a 3D printer for the space station. He said thermal process adjustments and adaptations to meet rigorous safety requirements were required to meet mission parameters.
Kemmer said the printer will be using ABS plastic while the second generation unit, scheduled for delivery to ISS in 2015, will offer multiple material capacity and an increased build volume. He added that the delivery of the second Made In Space printer means the device will be available for use by businesses, researchers and those interested in creating in-space hardware.
"Placing additive manufacturing in space will lead to similar capabilities on every future space station, deep space exploration vehicle, and space colony. Rapid construction of important materials is a critical need if humans are going to establish a greater footprint in our universe," Kemmer says.
The device was developed for use in zero-gravity with the aid of NASA's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and a prototype unit was tested on Zero-G Corporation's modified Boeing 727 parabolic airplane. After the flight unit passed NASA's extensive safety and operational standards, it was deemed flight ready.