NASA says 3-D printing, also called additive manufacturing, carried out in space could revolutionize space travel, allowing astronauts to make their parts and tools and eventually larger structures.
Marshall engineers put the 3-D printer, made by California-based Made In Space, through a battery of tests. The engineers at NASA’s Alabama base were able to verify that the device met the space agency’s safety and operational requirements for use aboard the space station. (Read an article about Marshall’s long involvement with the space station.)
“The Marshall Center has extensive expertise in additive manufacturing technology and in preparing experiments for launch and operating them on the space station,” said Chris Singer, director of Marshall’s Engineering Directorate. “Our expertise along with our ability to test payloads in flight-like environments has provided an excellent opportunity for a government and industry partnership to verify that the Made in Space printer was ready to demonstrate this technology for the first time in space.”
For three months, NASA said Marshall engineers put the printer through trials to ensure it could withstand launch vibrations and that its materials and electronics were safe for operation aboard the space station. They also tested the device with station systems and confirmed that it could be operated easily.
“Throughout our partnership with Made In Space, we have helped prepare the printer to work in an environment that is literally out of this world,” said Niki Werkheiser, 3-D print project manager at Marshall. “NASA engineers have a vast amount of experience designing and certifying hardware to operate in space. We were happy to share that knowledge with Made In Space. As a result, the hardware passed testing with flying colors.”
The first series of items to be 3-D printed on the space station also were tested at Marshall.
The printer works by extruding streams of heated plastic, which build layer upon layer out of the same material used to manufacture Lego bricks to create a three-dimensional object.
Marshall has been deeply involved in 3-D printing technologies.
Last month, Marshall propulsion engineers recently completed the first test firings of a NASA rocket combustion component manufactured using 3-D printing. The tests were conducted in support of acoustic scale model testing for the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket.
In little more than a month, Marshall engineers built two injectors with a special 3-D printing machine, inspected them and completed four hot-fire tests at extreme temperatures and pressures, NASA said.
In 2013, Marshall tested a 3-D printed rocket engine injector.