It’s hard to believe that months have already gone by since we experienced all the excitement, news, and chatter regarding the first 3D printer being sent into space. As the SpaceX Dragon supply freighter was bolted into place on arrival at the International Space Station last September, technological history was indeed ‘made in space.’ On that afternoon, September 23, 2014, the astronauts at the International Space Station received the Made in Space Zero-G 3D printer. Since then, I must say, I’ve looked up to the heavens on numerous occasions, wondering what that 3D printer was up to.
We do know that in a space of four months, 14 items have been produced from the Zero-G 3D printer, with a total of 25 parts. Made in Space can be inestimably proud of their 3D printer, which worked seamlessly — with no major print failures. In an incredible statement for the strength and capability of the printer, every 3D print was successful. As for whether the actual quality of each 3D print is up to par, considering they were produced in space, that will be left up to researchers and scientists to decide upon the astronauts’ return, as they bring the 3D printed items back for further inspection.
While the delivery of the 3D printer was in the headlines and the innovation and the idea of it being used ‘way up there’ in space was briefly on the minds of many, it’s important to remember why NASA wanted it there and why the mission of the 3D printer was so important: the idea of sustainability in space. For astronauts to be able to build tools and other items in space means they are able to create items rather than carrying them there — and not only that, they are able to create them from emails and downloaded files of 3D designs.
The parts they are 3D printing now on the 3D printer — barely a foot tall, 9½ inches wide and 14½ inches deep — will be assessed to see whether or not the process is viable. This will happen after the mission, at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, where they will check every microscopic detail and put each item under extreme stress tests to examine and prove their durability and properties. All of this research is important so NASA can decide what materials to send into space next time, as well as assessing what future challenges they should take on for 3D printing in space.
For now, the ‘3D Printing in Zero-Gravity Technology Demonstration’ seems to be a smashing success, as they have progressed from calibration coupons to the 3D printed ratchet, with each item being of its own significance. A number of calibration coupons were 3D printed before setting right off into 3D printing of the items such as the sample container and tools, and even an actual part for the 3D printer itself — a faceplate.
The calibration coupons assured the team that the 3D printer was working correctly, along with the tensile test, compression test, and flex test. After that, a number of prints were performed to 3D print items regarding performance and accuracy such as the hole resolution test specimen and the feature resolution test specimen, as well as an overhang test. They successfully printed a specimen container, a faceplate for the 3D printer as a replacement part, and a cubesat clip, which is a structural connector/spacer.
The ratchet, consisting of multiple parts, was the most exciting tool as it was successfully emailed to the ISS and 3D printed. The files for the ratchet were also released to the public in a viral download shared and reproduced by a multitude of NASA and 3D printing enthusiasts. Teachers and schools were quick to hop on the bandwagon for showing off the clever tool and using it as their own perfect tool for STEM education. If that’s not an exciting motivator for kids, we are going to be hard pressed to find one on this planet.
Have you been following the story of the ISS and their foray into 3D printing? What do you think of the impact 3D printing will have on our future space travels and potential ability to colonize? Discuss your thoughts and ideas with us in the 3D Prints on the 3D Printing From Space forum over at 3DPB.com.