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The International Space Station Is About to Get Its First 3D Printer

Additive manufacturing goes orbital.

by Becky Ferreira
Jun 12 2014, 9:15pm
Image: Made in Space

Today, Made in Space announced that it will be sending a 3D printer to the International Space Station, having aced all of NASA's certifications—ahead of schedule, no less. The space-ready printer is the first manufacturing device designed for off-Earth use, and will be performing a variety of print tests from the ISS's Microgravity Science Glovebox. It will be launched with SpaceX CRS-4 in August 2014.  

In this initial test, the company will focus on fine-tuning their technology in an orbital environment. The plan is to print 21 practical parts and tools, which will be returned to Earth for analysis. But Made in Space's ultimate goal is far more expansive—they aim to provide universal access to 3D printing in space.

Made in Space's 3D Printer. Image: Made in Space

“The possibilities are vast and far-reaching,” company spokesperson Grant Lowery told me. “We're just getting started in seeing people open up the idea that they'll have access to development in space.”

Though Lowery wasn't able to spill the beans on specifics, he did provide a sense of where the technology might be headed. “We have talked to businesses looking to test their materials, researchers looking to conduct experiments, artists who want their creations made in space, and many others,” he said. “Additionally we have a selection of STEM projects in the work that will involve students designing items that may be printed in space.”

As tantalizing as all this sounds, the entrepreneurs behind Made in Space have a lot of work to do before the dream comes to fruition. Indeed, the ISS-bound demo printer is itself several years in the making. The company first began testing additive manufacturing in microgravity back in 2011, on parabolic airplane flights. None of the original designs functioned in that environment, so the team methodically tackled the obstacles.

Made In Space CEO Aaron Kemmer during 2013 microgravity tests. Image: Made in Space.

“We had to account for a number of factors that terrestrial printers don't need to deal with,” explained Lowery. “We had to ensure there was no part movement or 'float' of components that would throw off a print since most printers are built with gravity assumed. We had to ruggedize the printer to withstand launch to space and still operate correctly.” The thermal processing of the design also had to be modified to function in microgravity.

On top of all that, Made in Space had to clear the necessary hurdles to partner with NASA. “There are stringent safety requirements NASA rightly imposes, since the printer would be operating in the contained environment of the ISS,” said Lowery. “After developing our prototype we conducted additional microgravity flight tests in 2013 and our printer performed without problems.”

Made in Space plans to leverage the lessons of this inaugural ISS stint into their second-generation printer: the Additive Manufacturing Facility. The AMF is scheduled for launch in 2015, and is intended to be a permanent addition to the station. It will be able to print more complicated materials and handle more volume.

It's hard to miss the obvious potential of the company's vision. Rather than packing multiple copies of back-up parts, for example, an astronaut crew could save space by printing objects on demand. It will be interesting to see what other applications might evolve once the AMF is permanently installed.

“Passing the final tests and shipping the hardware are significant milestones,” noted Made In Space CEO Aaron Kemmer in the company's press release. “But they ultimately lead to an even more meaningful one—the capability for anyone on Earth to have the option of printing objects on the ISS. This is unprecedented access to space. If you want to 3D print in space, contact us now.”