The International Space Station’s 3-D printer has manufactured a printhead faceplate, engraved with names of the organizations that collaborated on this space station technology demonstration: NASA and Made In Space, Inc. It is the first 3-D printed object in space.
The first objects built in space will be returned to Earth in 2015 for detailed analysis and compared with the identical ground control samples made on the flight printer prior to launch. The goal of this analysis is to verify that the 3-D printing process works the same in microgravity as it does on Earth.
The printer works by extruding heated plastic, which then builds layer upon layer to create three-dimensional objects. Long-term missions would benefit greatly from onboard manufacturing capabilities. Data and experience gathered in this demonstration will improve future 3-D manufacturing technology and equipment for the space program, allowing a greater degree of autonomy and flexibility for astronauts. This capability may decrease cost and risk on the station – critical when space explorers venture far from Earth and will create an on-demand supply chain for needed tools and parts.