NASA prepares to launch first 3D printer into space


NASA is already preparing to launch the 3D printer that it co-designed with private space manufacturing company Made in Space next year, promising a future where parts can be built on demand in space.

Image credit: Flickr user NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Image credit: Flickr user NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

“Any time we realize we can 3-D print something in space, it’s like Christmas,” said inventor and project consultant Andrew Filo, quoted in the AP report published on the US’ ABC News. “You can get rid of concepts like rationing, scarce or irreplaceable.”

The Made in Space and NASA team envision a future where space missions can be virtually self-sufficient and manufacture most of what they need in space, according to the former’s website. With the 3D printer, astronauts on board the International Space Station would be able to print components, tools and equipment on demand in space. It is about the size of a shoe box and is made specifically to work in micro-gravitational conditions.

“Imagine an astronaut needing to make a life-or-death repair on the International Space Station,” said Aaron Kemmer, CEO of Made in Space.

“Rather than hoping that the necessary parts and tools are on the station already, what if the parts could be 3-D printed when they needed them?”

According to the AP feature, NASA initially had a dozen machines to choose from ranging from the basic to the very high tech. However they were all built to function in an Earth setting and thus presented several challenges, including those that involved space travel, microgravity and variable temperatures, among others.

That’s when NASA decided to collaborate with Made in Space to build something entirely new.

Since the project began in 2010 Made in Space tested several printers in reduced-gravity aircraft and last week the company’s engineers worked with a sealed 3D printer in a dust-free cleanroom, preparing the models for more pre-launch tests.

“The printer is built specifically to handle the environmental challenges of space and uses extrusion additive manufacturing, which builds objects layer by layer out of polymers and other materials,” said Made in Space, via an earlier article published in Dezeen.

According to the AP report the initial prints from the 3D printer will be tests—different small shapes to be studied for strength and accuracy. Made in Space is also discussing with NASA what the first official piece will be.

“It’s not something we’re discussing publicly right now,” said CEO Kemmer.

The 3D printer will also serve as a risk reduction and feedback development mechanism for the production version of the entire Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) which will be flown on 2015 and will enable multiple entities to print parts in space.