In December, 2014, on the International Space Station, astronaut Barry Wilmore opened up a 3D printer, launched a year earlier, and pulled out a part designed by Made in Space, a ratchet wrench. NASA demonstrates how it works back on earth.
Made in Space's Brad Kohlenberg calls the printing in space a success. NASA and his company will test how well the parts were made. Later this year Made in Space will unveil a commercial 3D space printer.
He says, "The concept is, give us your file. We'll send it to a printer, print it out and you'll have your hardware in space in days instead of having to take months to integrate it into a rocket, test it, launch it, and all that time and money..."
At NASA's Marshall In Space, Manufacturing Project Manager Niki Werkheiser is using simulated Martian sand to construct a house that, potentially, astronauts could build themselves with 3D-printed parts once on Mars. She is also making rocket components.
“We’re already building things on the ground using metals like propulsion components for our rockets but they use a powder based metal material. It’s a very fine powder and we haven’t quite figured out how to manipulate those powders without gravity, so that’s one we’re still working on.”
These materials would be embedded with electronics, so there is also research on how the electronics and packing materials can be recycled.
The 3D space printer could be used for things like building shelters in space beginning in 2028. There are more down-to-earth applications. NASA is partnering with the U.S. Army, which is interested in using the technology for soldier housing and disaster relief.