This week, a 3-D printer fabricated a part for itself. Normally, that wouldn't make headlines — except that it happened in space.
"It's a history-making moment for us because it's the first time ever that we're talking about transitioning from launching every part we might need in space from Earth, to actually being able to email a file, a design to space and make that part on demand," says Niki Werkheiser, the project manager for the International Space Station 3-D Printer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
NASA astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore, Expedition 42 commander aboard the International Space Station, installed the printer and conducted calibration tests on Nov. 17. The first object, which is actually a side casing for part of the printer, was produced on Nov. 25. Werkheiser says they chose that to print part of the printer itself "to show that if we need replacement parts, or maybe one day in the future if the printer needs to print another printer, we can do that."
This project started two years ago. NASA partnered with a Silicon Valley space manufacturing company called Made in Space to make the 3-D printer.
There are several categories of objects they hope to be able to 3-D print in space — from replacement crew tools to small satellites. And since the International Space Station is a scientific laboratory, they hope to be able to 3-D print syringes, tweezers and sample containers — rather than lugging up extras or waiting on resupply missions for new parts.
3-D printing sounds cool and fun, but the International Space Station program has serious implications for long-term space exploration. Werkheiser says that for missions to Mars or to asteroids, "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."
But for 3-D printing to work, you still have to transport all the raw materials to make the parts. So does the process really save room?
Werkheiser says this is her favorite question to answer and was one of the first issues examined in the project. She says some mass is immediately saved when you're transporting raw materials rather than the spare parts themselves. But to really save room and time, they are working to develop in-space recyclers that can re-use 3-D printed materials and turn launch packaging into feed stock for 3-D printers.
In the little time that the printer has been up and running in space, Werkheiser says they've already learned things that they couldn't in years of terrestrial testing. "There is literally no other platform on the universe where we can actually test it out, other than the International Space Station," she says.
There actually may be some benefits to 3-D printing in a weightless, microgravity environment. Sometimes, down here on Earth, materials sag in the 3-D printing process. Plus, there are some structures — ones designed with overhangs or other features that gravity pulls down — that may only be able to be 3-D printed in space.
NASA will transport the first objects printed at the International Space Station back to Earth in 2015 for comparison and analysis.
ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
Now, some big news from NASA this week you may have missed.
NIKI WERKHEISER: This week was kind of a history-making moment for us. We actually 3-D printed the first part ever in space.
WESTERVELT: Niki Werkheiser is the project manager for the International Space Station's 3-D printer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. This project started two years ago.
NASA partnered with a small Silicon Valley business called Made in Space to make the 3-D printer. It's a kind of industrial robot that uses successive layers of material to make everything from tools to spare parts. It was recently installed at the International Space Station. And this week, Werkheiser says, it pumped out space's first 3-D printed object.
WERKHEISER: We actually 3-D printed a part of the printer itself to show that if we need replacement parts, or maybe one day in the future if the printer needs to print another printer, we can do that. It's a history-making moment for us because it's the first time ever that we're talking about transitioning from launching every part we might need in space from Earth to actually being able to email a file, a design, to space and make that part on demand.
WESTERVELT: So what specific things do you hope to be able to print? You mentioned general parts, but are there specific parts that wear out more than others that you're looking to be able to back up and replace quickly? What?
WERKHEISER: Sure, we actually have several categories of parts that we're interested in - things like standard crew tools and hand tools that can break or get worn out or get lost. Also the International Space Station is a world-class scientific laboratory. And just like with laboratories on the ground, you have a lot of syringes and tweezers and sample containers. Another kind of fun one to think about are things like small satellites.
WESTERVELT: Niki, you mention things like crew hand tools. But you still have to transport all that raw material into space. I mean, are you really saving that much room or time?
WERKHEISER: Thank you for asking. That's my favorite question, because as soon as we started talking about flying a 3-D printer, obviously we had the same exact concern and questions. We do immediately save some mass, if you start to replace some of the spare parts that you launch on orbit.
But you're absolutely right. And so in early 2014, we actually awarded two small business innovation research awards to develop an in-space recycler that will actually take the 3-D printed parts and recycle those back into usable feedstock.
And just a couple of weeks ago, we released the call for the next round of recyclers, which will actually be able to turn our launch packaging into usable feedstock to 3-D print with. We will be flying back the first kind of samples that we print to Earth to do a detailed engineering analysis and compare to see if there's any differences in the final products than what we print on the ground.
WESTERVELT: This sounds really cool, but there are some implications here. I mean, how important is this for the future of long-term space exploration?
WERKHEISER: If we're going to explore longer-term exploration missions such as to Mars or to asteroids, 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.
WESTERVELT: I know when I pack for asteroid travel, I always pack a 3-D printer.
WERKHEISER: (Laughter) Oh, next time you go, you certainly will. We'll have it ready.
WESTERVELT: Niki Werkheiser is the project manager for the International Space Station 3-D printer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Niki, thanks for coming in.
WERKHEISER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.