The first step toward long-term space flight: The ISS 3D prints first spare part

Component was engraved to commemorate the occasion

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The Independent Online

The International Space Station had a seemingly boring first today, its 3D printer was fired up and used to create a plastic faceplate.

But while 3D printing might at times feel a little gimmicky on the ground, it could be revolutionary for the ISS, enabling it to manufacture spare parts and new components for the first time.

The development removes barriers for long-term space travel, which demands fixes, refuelling and absolutely cutting edge technology, which it will now be easier and faster to put in space.

"This first print is the initial step toward providing an on-demand machine shop capability away from Earth," said Niki Werkheiser, project manager for the International Space Station 3-D Printer at Nasa’s Marshall Space Flight Centre. "The space station is the only laboratory where we can fully test this technology in space."

The 3D printer was installed earlier this month and after a few tests created its first component, quite fittingly a spare faceplate for the printer itself.

"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," Werkheiser added.

"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.

Nasa is hoping that the ability to create a multitude of different parts 400km above Earth will enable them to more easily test space's effect on them.

"This is the first time we’ve ever used a 3-D printer in space, and we are learning, even from these initial operations ," Werkheiser explained.

"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."