It marks the first time that hardware has been created using additive manufacturing off the planet earth, at least by human beings, as history was made this week when the first 3D printer built to operate in space manufactured its first part on the International Space Station.
"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. 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," said CEO of Made In Space, Inc., Aaron Kemmer.
The first object made was a functional part of the printer itself – a faceplate for the printer's extruder printhead.
Jason Dunn, the Chief Technical Officer for Made In Space, says the event is a demonstration of the potential of AM technology to produce replacement parts on demand, should a critical component fail.
Phase one of the Made In Space project will include printing out test coupons, parts and tools to validate the design, methodology and technology assumptions of the idea. The team at Made In Space says they'll also output the same objects via an identical printer on earth. The aim is to provide a group of control prints which can later be compared to the items created in microgravity. Made In Space says testing both groups of prints will help them collect data on a wide variety of factors like tensile strength, torque, and flexibility, and the information will later be used to make adjustments to a second 3D printer scheduled for delivery to the ISS in early 2015.
"The International Space Station has provided us with an ideal laboratory for demonstrating this game-changing technology that will not only benefit the station, but will also enable sustainable deep space missions," says Niki Werkheiser, program manager for the project at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. "The project also serves as a model for how NASA can work with a small business to design, test, and build tools that can transform space exploration."
Chief Strategy Officer for Made In Space, Mike Chen, says the project means rockets are no longer the sole way to send hardware into space.
Called the "3D Printing in Zero-Gravity Experiment," the project is a demonstration intended to gather data and prove the concept of using additive manufacturing processes in reduced gravity. Jointly conducted by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) and Made In Space, the project was partially funded by the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. The printer was delivered to the ISS in September 2014 and installed in the "Microgravity Science Glovebox" on November 17th.
Mike Snyder, Director of R&D for Made In Space and Principal Investigator for the experiment, says manufacturing components on demand will result in a "less Earth-dependent space program in the near future."
"This project demonstrates the basic fundamentals of useful manufacturing in space," Snyder said. "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."