First object 3D printed in space made aboard ISS

26 Nov 2014

ISS commander Barry 'Butch' Wilmore holds up the first object made in space with additive manufacturing or 3D printing. Image via NASA

Offering hope for future space colonisation, the first ever 3D-printed object in space has been created aboard the International Space Station (ISS) following the printer’s installment last week.

US space agency NASA has been busy behind the scenes to make sure all goes according to plan as NASA has been interested in examining the process of 3D printing in a zero-gravity environment.

If it is successfully expanded upon, 3D printing could reduce costs significantly by allowing astronauts to build their own tools and materials in space that will also allow them much greater independence for future deep-space missions.

NASA astronaut Barry ‘Butch’ Wilmore installed the printer on 17 November and conducted the first calibration test print before printing a second calibration test on 20 November.

Finally on Monday, ground controllers sent the printer the command to make the first printed part: a faceplate of the extruder’s casing, which demonstrated that the printer can make replacement parts for itself.

As the first object 3D printed in space, the faceplate is engraved with names of the organisations that collaborated on this space station technology demonstration, those being NASA and Made In Space Inc, the space manufacturing company that worked with NASA to design, build and test the 3D printer.

Niki Werkheiser, the ISS 3D printer project manager, discusses the on-orbit set-up and first test run of the ISS’s 3D printer

Ability to print new printers?

Niki Werkheiser, project manager for the ISS’ 3D printer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, said they chose to print the faceplate first because “if we are going to have 3D printers make spare and replacement parts for critical items in space, we have to be able to make spare parts for the printers”.

She continued, “If a printer is critical for explorers, it must be capable of replicating its own parts, so that it can keep working during longer journeys to places like Mars or an asteroid. Ultimately, one day, a printer may even be able to print another printer.”

The first objects built in space will be returned to Earth in 2015 for detailed analysis and comparison to identical ground-control samples made on the flight printer after final flight testing earlier this year to verify that the 3D-printing process works the same in microgravity as it does on Earth.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic