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First 3D printer in space makes debut creation

International Space Station Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore holds up the first object made in space with additive manufacturing or 3-D printing. Wilmore installed the printer on Nov. 17, 2014, and helped crews on the ground with the first print on Nov. 25, 2014.

NASA

The first 3D printer in space has popped out its first creation -- a replacement part for the first 3D printer in space.

The 3D printer, delivered to the International Space Station two months ago, made a sample faceplate for the print head casing.

"We chose this part to print first because, after all, if we are going to have 3D printers make spare and replacement parts for critical items in space, we have to be able to make spare parts for the printers," project manager Niki Werkheiser said. "If a printer is critical for explorers, it must be capable of replicating its own parts, so that it can keep working during longer journeys to places like Mars or an asteroid. Ultimately, one day, a printer may even be able to print another printer."

Using data from calibration tests performed last week, controllers sent print instructions from the ground to the ISS. Space station commander Butch Wilmore removed the small plastic creation from the printer Tuesday, a day after its manufacture.

Some of the plastic piece stuck to the print tray, said NASA spokesman Dan Huot. He noted it's part of the learning process and will be further investigated.

"This is the first time we've ever used a 3D printer in space, and we are learning, even from these initial operations," Werkheiser said. "As we print more parts we'll be able to learn whether some of the effects we are seeing are caused by microgravity or just part of the normal fine-tuning process for printing. When we get the parts back on Earth, we'll be able to do a more detailed analysis to find out how they compare to parts printed on Earth."

About 20 objects will be printed in the next few weeks, all for return to Earth for analysis, NASA said. The space agency hopes to one day use 3D printing to make parts for broken equipment in space - "an on-demand machine shop," according to Werkheiser.

Made in Space, the Northern California company that supplied the space station's 3D printer, called it "a transformative moment." The newly created, rectangular faceplate - considered functional by the company - includes the Made in Space name, as well as NASA's.

"When the first human fashioned a tool from a rock, it couldn't have been conceived that one day we'd be replicating the same fundamental idea in space," Aaron Kemmer, chief executive officer, said in a statement.

Similar 3D items will be duplicated at the company's offices in Mountain View for comparison.

The stronger-than-expected adhesion to the print tray could mean that the layer-by-layer bonding process is different in weightlessness, NASA noted.

The company will replace the orbiting demo machine with a much bigger commercial printer next year. The European Space Agency, meanwhile, plans to fly its own 3D printer in 2015.