ISS Commander Barry Wilmore holds up the first object made in space with additive manufacturing or 3-D printing. Image source: NASA.
An historic first for human spaceflight was performed today when the first 3-D printer in space replicated its own label.
NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore, Expedition 42 commander aboard the International Space Station, installed the printer on Nov. 17 and conducted the first calibration test print. Based on the test print results, the ground control team sent commands to realign the printer and printed a second calibration test on Nov. 20. These tests verified that the printer was ready for manufacturing operations. On Nov. 24, ground controllers sent the printer the command to make the first printed part: a faceplate of the extruder’s casing. This demonstrated that the printer can make replacement parts for itself. The 3-D printer uses a process formally known as additive manufacturing to heat a relatively low-temperature plastic filament and extrude it one layer at a time to build the part defined in the design file sent to the machine.
On the morning of Nov. 25, Wilmore removed the part from the printer and inspected it. Part adhesion on the tray was stronger than anticipated, which could mean layer bonding is different in microgravity, a question the team will investigate as future parts are printed. Wilmore installed a new print tray, and the ground team sent a command to fine-tune the printer alignment and printed a third calibration coupon. When Wilmore removes the calibration coupon, the ground team will be able to command the printer to make a second object. The ground team makes precise adjustments before every print, and the results from this first print are contributing to a better understanding about the parameters to use when 3-D printing on the space station.
“When the first human fashioned a tool from a rock, it couldn’t have been conceived that one day we’d be replicating the same fundamental idea in space,” said Aaron Kemmer, CEO of Made In Space, Inc. “We look at the operation of the 3D printer as a transformative moment, not just for space development, but for the capability of our species to live away from Earth.”
NASA’s 3-D Printing Project Manager Niki Werkheiser discusses the installation of the 3-D printer on the ISS. Video source: ReelNASA YouTube channel.