This week NASA publicly announced that its space 3-D printer successfully printed a 3-D spare part under zero gravity conditions on International Space Station (ISS). The printer is made by a Silicon Valley based producer called Made in Space and it was transported to ISS two months ago on a resupply mission.
The device printed a faceplate carrying NASA and Made in Space’s logos. Although this may not seem a big deal, Niki Werkheiserr, chief manager for the ISS 3-D printer project at NASA’s space flight center headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama, was very enthusiastic about it. He said it was a history making moment for NASA, because it was the first time the agency could e-mail a file or design for a part to space and make that part on demand. Up to this moment NASA had to launch every single part ISS needed from Earth which was very costly and extremely time-consuming. For every kilo to be transported from Earth to space, NASA spends between $5,000 and $25,000.
On November 17, Barry Wilmore, NASA’s Expedition 42 officer, installed the 3-D printer and calibrated it. On November 25, the NASA’s first 3-D printer to print in space produced a faceplate carrying NASA’s logo. Werkheiser explained they chose to print a printer’s part to show that it was now possible to print in space spare parts and even another 3-D printers if ever needed.
The project for this printer started two years ago. NASA commissioned Made in Space to solve all the technological impediments a 3-D printer would have faced under a zero gravity environment.
Now astronauts hope they will be able to 3-D print an extensive array of objects ranging from space crew tools (such as sample containers, tweezers or syringes) to nano-satellites.
“For missions to Mars, for instance, we really can’t be dependent on launching every single item we might ever need from Earth. We will need to be able to make what we need, when we need it, on demand, and this is the first step to establishing those capabilities,”
Some may argue that tons of raw materials would have to be ferried from Earth to space for the 3-D space printer to be able to cover all NASA’s needs for space exploration equipment. Werkheiser say this was one of the first issues her team thought about when designing the 3-D printer.
Raw materials save storage space since they are easier to deposit than prefabricated spare parts, Werkheiser said. Additionally, the ISS team is now working on developing space recyclers for 3-D printed materials and leftovers that can be later reused as printer feedstock.