3D printing is a fairly new technology but astronauts onboard the International Space Station (ISS) are among the first to take on the new manufacturing process. In fact, NASA has just received the first box of 3D printed items from the ISS.
Under the leadership of Quincy Bean, head of NASA's 3D Printing in Zero-G Technology Demonstration, engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama took the wraps off the very first items that were 3D printed in space, including the first 3D printed space ratchet, whose design was drafted on Earth and was later beamed up to the ISS.
There were a total of 21 items printed using 14 different designs. Each item in the carefully packaged box was sealed and labeled in separate plastic bags. Aside from the ratchet, which could serve a purpose for astronauts in space, most of the items sent down to Earth are calibration coupons, but Bean says NASA plans to continue the 3D printing project and head into the second phase to make more practical tools that astronauts can actually use.
Meanwhile, the first set of 3D printed objects, which was sent to Earth via SpaceX's partially reusable Dragon resupply spacecraft, are up for testing and scrutiny by Earth-bound engineers, who will compare the items to another set of 3D printed items created by the same printer before it was sent to the ISS and installed in the space station's Microgravity Science Glovebox in November. The tests will include one for durability, one for strength, and one for structure. Each item will also be placed under an electron microscope to help the engineers find differences between the space-printed items and the Earth-made samples.