A special package recently arrived at NASA's Marshal Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama – objects printed on the Made In Space 3D printer installed on the international space station.
During late 2014, 21 items from 14 designs plus calibration coupons were 3D printed in space as part of a controlled experiment to test 3D printing's manufacturing viability under zero-G and microgravity conditions. They were returned to earth in February aboard the SpaceX Dragon and NASA engineers presented them for a formal unboxing on Monday.
Prior to launching the printer into space, identical items were printed on the ground. Materials engineers can now begin comparing the ground parts to the space parts. The objects will be inspected under microscopes, including electron microscopes, to search for differences. Durability, strength and structural tests will also be performed.
Additive manufacturing is considered a potentially crucial component of extended space exploration. The time required for trips to asteroids, Mars and beyond dictates that astronauts have a degree of independence not necessary for near-earth missions, where resupply via a launch vehicle is common. Ideally, 3D printing will allow difficulties such as replacement tools and parts to be overcome by simply emailing a 3D model to the astronauts – something that has already been successfully done on the space station.