NASA officials partnered with industry to launch the 3D Printing in Zero-G Experiment and Technology Demonstration, with the goal of validating the additive manufacturing capabilities in zero-gravity.
NASA scientists and Made In Space engineers at NASA Ames Research Park in California considered the International Space Station (ISS) to be the optimal place to initiate the journey of in-space manufacturing.
The Made In Space and NASA team envisions a future where space missions can be essentially self-sufficient and manufacture most of what they need in space, including consumables, common tools, replacements for lost or broken parts, and eventually even small, deployable satellites called CubeSats.
“A 3D printer extrudes streams of heated plastic, metal, or other material, building layer on top of layer to create three-dimensional objects,” explains Ken Cooper, B.A. in Mechanical Engineering, Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Alabama. “Testing a 3D printer using relatively low-temperature plastic feedstock on the International Space Station is the first step towards establishing an on-demand machine shop in space, a critical enabling component for deep-space crewed missions and in-space manufacturing.”
“The 3D printing experiment with NASA is a step towards the future. The ability to 3D print parts and tools on-demand greatly increases the reliability and safety of space missions while also dropping the cost by orders of magnitude,” said Aaron Kemmer, chief executive officer of Made In Space, located at the NASA Ames Research Park in Mountain View, Calif. “The public has been hearing about what this 3D printing technology can do, but most people haven’t seen a genuine impact on their lives yet. Space is one of the key places where humanity will see the first impact of this incredible technology.”
The first printers at the ISS will begin by building test coupons, Kemmer describes, after which they will be used to output a broad range of parts, such as tools and science equipment.