Engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, unboxed some special cargo from the International Space Station on April 6: the first items manufactured in space with a 3D printer.

The items were manufactured as part of the 3D Printing in Zero-G Technology Demonstration on the space station to show that additive manufacturing can make a variety of parts and tools in space.

The early in-space 3D printing demonstrations are the first steps toward realizing an additive manufacturing, print-on-demand “machine shop” for long-duration missions and sustaining human exploration of other planets, where there is extremely limited ability and availability of Earth-based resupply and logistics support.

In-space manufacturing technologies like 3D printing will help NASA explore Mars, asteroids, and other locations.

NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore installed the printer in the station’s Microgravity Science Glovebox in November 2014. Before the end of the year, the crew manufactured 21 items including a ratchet wrench, the first tool built in space. To make the items, the printer heated a relatively low-temperature plastic filament to build parts, layer on top of layer, in designs supplied to the machine. The printer remains on aboard the station for continued use later this year.

The printer used 14 different designs and built a total of 21 items and some calibration coupons. The parts returned to Earth in February on the SpaceX Dragon. They were then delivered to Marshall where the testing to compare the ground controls to the flight parts will be conducted.

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Also: Learn about the Design and Fabrication of a Radio Frequency Grin Lens Using 3D Printing.