On April 6, 2015, the Huntsville-based Marshall Space Flight Center of NASA received a special shipment from the International Space Station (ISS). The shipment contained the first objects to be built using a 3D printer in space.
According to reports, the items were built as part of the “3D Printing in Zero-G Technology Demonstration” that was carried out in space with the aim of showcasing that modern technology allows manufacturing of a range of tools and parts even in zero gravity.
This, according to experts, is just the first step in the direction of setting up a machine shop that will use addictive manufacturing technology and will print objects on demand. Such a machine shop will play a vital role in long-duration space missions and human expeditions in other planets that do not have the ability of provide Earth-based logistics support. In short, this in-space manufacturing tech will allow NASA to explore asteroids, Mars and other similar locations more effortlessly.
The demonstration procedure began in November 2014 with installation of a 3D printer in the International Space Station’s Microgravity Science Glovebox. The process was commenced by Barry Wilmore, a NASA astronaut. By the end of 2014, the crew managed to manufacture a total of 21 items using the printer. The first object that was built using this special technology was a wrench.
For building the 21 items, the printer had to use 14 different designs. With it, it also required a few calibration coupons. The parts came back to our planet in February 2015 on the spacecraft SpaceX Dragon and were finally delivered to engineers at Marshall on April 6.
Experts at the Marshall Space Flight Center will now test the 3D printed objects and compare the flight parts to ground controls.
The printer was used for making similar parts on the surface of the Earth before it was installed in the ISS. The ground samples and space samples will now be tested and compared for quality. Both sets will undergo tests for strength, and durability; structural tests will also be carried out. This will allow the NASA scientists to understand whether 3D printing is as effective in space as it is on the surface of the Earth.