International Space Station 3-D printed parts

Most of the 21 parts printed at the International Space Station were test coupons, ranging from a compression test coupon to a crowfoot coupon. Photo Credit: Made in Space.

Printing tools in space makes sense. Launching something into outer space costs $10,000 per kilogram or more, according to Made In Space. Building there is a more economical solution. In addition, items currently used at the International Space Station must get there on a rocket, so they’re designed to withstand the launch and voyage. Rush says that leads to over-engineered items, which also are expensive.

Another argument for printing in space concerns part redundancy. NASA sends many duplicate items to the International Space Station because astronauts can’t simply purchase misplaced or broken tools and equipment like the torque wrench. “There are literally billions of dollars of spare parts on the International Space Station,” says Rush. “Instead, we can send up raw materials and replace some of those things through additive manufacturing.” A study by NASA found that 82 percent of failed parts could be considered preliminary candidates for additive fabrication and repair technologies.

Prior to launching anything into space, Made In Space conducted parabolic flight testing on C9 aircraft through NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, which facilitates payload testing for companies. During the flight tests, the 3-D printer onboard built a part while the aircraft went into a freefall about 400 times (20 seconds each time) to simulate a zero-gravity environment. Successful tests led to the 2014 launch into space. “On November 24, 2014, we manufactured the very first parts in space,” says Rush.