NASA’s In-space Manufacturing (ISM) project is responsible for developing the manufacturing capabilities that will provide on-demand, sustainable operations during NASA long-duration missions to destinations such as Mars. This includes testing & advancing the desired technologies, as well as establishing the required skills & processes (such as certification and characterization) that will enable the technologies to become institutionalized. The culmination of the technologies being developed under ISM will result in an integrated “Fab Lab” capable of 3D printing with multiple materials, including metals and embedded electronics, as well as the ability to perform in-space recycling of 3D printed parts and consumables such as packaging materials.
The first major objective on the ISM roadmap was the development of the 3D Printing in Zero-G Technology Demonstration payload, which made history as the first 3D printer in space after launching on SpaceX-4 on 9/21/14. The 3D printer functioned nominally and to date, it has manufactured 21 parts in space. This included the first part to be “emailed” to Space when a 3D Printed wrench was manufactured and demonstrated on-demand capability by uplinking a part file that was not pre-loaded to the 3D Printer. The first flight samples were ‘unboxed’ at NASA MSFC in April 2015. These initial parts were returned to the ground for test and comparison to the ground samples to determine if microgravity has any impact on the 3D printing process. These results will help designers determine if the 3D printer or parts being produced should be designed differently in space, or not.
The ISM project has also started a national Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) outreach program called Future Engineers in order to ensure that a future workforce needed for 3D printing is developed. The Future Engineers Program is a K-12 STEM challenge made possible thru a Space Act Agreement (SAA) between NASA and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). In just one year, Future Engineers has issued two 3D printing design challenges. The teen winner of the first challenge is from Enterprise, AL and will see his part printed on the ISS as the first student-designed part ever 3D printed in space.