Space, the final frontier for 3-D printing

Story highlights

  • International Space Station's 3-D printer has created the first object to be made in orbit
  • The object is a white printer part emblazoned with the words "Made in Space" and "NASA"
  • This could open up space travel as not every object used will need to be launched from Earth
We're used to seeing manufacturer tags that read "Made in the USA," "Made in Taiwan" or "Made in..." just about anywhere on the globe. But this week, for the first time, an item can read "Made in Space."
The International Space Station's 3-D printer created the first object to be made in orbit on Tuesday. The U.S. space agency released a picture of astronaut Barry "Butch" Wilmore holding the newly printed piece, a white printer part emblazoned with the words "Made in Space" and "NASA."
It's not just a novelty.
"There are many challenges about living and working in space, including when a part or a tool is broken or simply is not working correctly, and the spare part is 200 miles away, here on the surface of the Earth," said Bill Hubscher of NASA's ISS Program Science Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, in a video posted on NASA.gov.
"Explorers traveling to Mars or to asteroids will face these same challenges," but they won't be able to get goods from a resupply ship, he said.
NASA's International Space Station 3-D printer project manager Niki Werkheiser says it's a historic achievement because it allows engineers "to e-mail our hardware to space instead of launching it."
"Since the inception of the human space program, we have been completely dependent on launching every single thing we need from Earth to space," said Werkheiser in the video.
3-D printers work by applying layer upon layer of heated plastic. But how do pieces made in space compare with those made on Earth? Do the layers bond differently without Earth's gravity? That's a question scientists hope to answer next year when the samples are returned to Earth on a SpaceX Dragon capsule.
Before the 3-D printer flew to the space lab in September, the team printed a complete set of sample items here on Earth to be used as ground control samples. It'll be an "apples-to-apples comparison," said NASA's Werkheiser.
"Made in Space" isn't just the printer faceplate's manufacturing location.
It's the name of the California-based company that designed and built the space station's 3-D printer with NASA's guidance, and it was Made in Space engineers on the ground who commanded the printer for this week's demonstration of 3-D printing prowess in microgravity.