Advanced Manufacturing

Additive Manufacturing in Space:

Exploring NASA’s 3D Printing Projects

Did you know that NASA sends up to 7,000 pounds of spare parts to the International Space Station every year? To reduce the clutter, the agency is turning to additive manufacturing – 3D-printing required parts, rather than launching them two hundred miles above the Earth. A Tech Briefs feature article explores three recent additive manufacturing initiatives:

  • The 3D Printing in Zero G Technology Demonstration Mission;
  • The Additive Manufacturing Facility
  • Recycling in Space

After a review of these three additive manufacturing efforts and NASA’s recent attempts at electronics printing and metal 3D printing, Tech Briefs speaks with Tracie Prater, a materials engineer at Marshall Space Flight Center.

NASA’s In-Space Manufacturing Project, begun at NASA Marshall, leads the development of technologies and processes that will enable on-demand production capabilities like additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping.

In the Tech Briefs Q&A, Prater reveals:

  • The most common 3D-printed parts in space
  • Verification methods to ensure that 3D-printed parts meet NASA requirements
  • Post-process inspection methods for additive manufacturing
  • The role of additive manufacturing in the future, and in long-duration space missions

To date, NASA’s additive manufacturing efforts for the International Space Station have emphasized the 3D printing of polymers, or plastics. The fused filament fabrication (FFF) process, a technique used by many desktop printers, works well in microgravity, is safe to operate in a crewed environment, and meets the International Space Station’s power, volume, and mass constraints.

NASA isn’t asking astronauts to sacrifice reliability with their 3D-printed components. The agency works with the ISS to ensure the parts are space-qualified.

“We do need to maintain consistent engagement with them to ensure that parts in habitat systems can be additively manufactured or redesigned for additive manufacturing if needed in a mission scenario,” Prater told Tech Briefs in the Q&A.

With a successful demonstration of the additive manufacturing capabilities on the International Space Station, NASA hopes to use the building method for future Moon and Mars missions – scenarios where you can’t go back for a forgotten part!

To date, in-space manufacturing demonstrations on ISS have included three initiatives:

  • The 3D Printing in Zero G Technology Demonstration Mission

The 2014-2016 project, a collaboration with the Mountain View, CA-based startup Made in Space, investigated the effects of consistent microgravity on melt deposition additive manufacturing of a common polymer material.

  • The Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF)

This commercial facility from Made in Space is a multi-material 3D printer for polymers. NASA has used AMF to investigate materials and produce actual functional parts on ISS, including an antenna part, an adaptor for the station’s oxygen generation system, and a part to connect two free-flying robots known as Spheres.

  • Recycling in Space

The ReFabricator unit, from the Seattle, WA-based aerospace company Tethers Unlimited, was flown to ISS in 2019. ReFabricator is designed to print parts with a plastic material known as ULTEM 9085, which can then be recycled back into feedstock for further printing.

  • FabLab: Metal Additive Manufacturing

The Multimaterial Fabrication Laboratory is designed to occupy a full EXPRESS rack on ISS. The “FabLab” will include a metal additive manufacturing process, a furnace and endmill for post-processing, and an in-process inspection capability.

Read the full article on Tech Briefs: 3D Printing and Space Exploration: How NASA Will Use Additive Manufacturing.