ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
Now, some big news from NASA this week you may have missed.
NIKI WERKHEISER: This week was kind of a history-making moment for us. We actually 3-D printed the first part ever in space.
WESTERVELT: Niki Werkheiser is the project manager for the International Space Station's 3-D printer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. This project started two years ago.
NASA partnered with a small Silicon Valley business called Made in Space to make the 3-D printer. It's a kind of industrial robot that uses successive layers of material to make everything from tools to spare parts. It was recently installed at the International Space Station. And this week, Werkheiser says, it pumped out space's first 3-D printed object.
WERKHEISER: We actually 3-D printed a part of the printer itself to show that if we need replacement parts, or maybe one day in the future if the printer needs to print another printer, we can do that. It's a history-making moment for us because it's the first time ever that we're talking about transitioning from launching every part we might need in space from Earth to actually being able to email a file, a design, to space and make that part on demand.
WESTERVELT: So what specific things do you hope to be able to print? You mentioned general parts, but are there specific parts that wear out more than others that you're looking to be able to back up and replace quickly? What?
WERKHEISER: Sure, we actually have several categories of parts that we're interested in - things like standard crew tools and hand tools that can break or get worn out or get lost. Also the International Space Station is a world-class scientific laboratory. And just like with laboratories on the ground, you have a lot of syringes and tweezers and sample containers. Another kind of fun one to think about are things like small satellites.
WESTERVELT: Niki, you mention things like crew hand tools. But you still have to transport all that raw material into space. I mean, are you really saving that much room or time?
WERKHEISER: Thank you for asking. That's my favorite question, because as soon as we started talking about flying a 3-D printer, obviously we had the same exact concern and questions. We do immediately save some mass, if you start to replace some of the spare parts that you launch on orbit.
But you're absolutely right. And so in early 2014, we actually awarded two small business innovation research awards to develop an in-space recycler that will actually take the 3-D printed parts and recycle those back into usable feedstock.
And just a couple of weeks ago, we released the call for the next round of recyclers, which will actually be able to turn our launch packaging into usable feedstock to 3-D print with. We will be flying back the first kind of samples that we print to Earth to do a detailed engineering analysis and compare to see if there's any differences in the final products than what we print on the ground.
WESTERVELT: This sounds really cool, but there are some implications here. I mean, how important is this for the future of long-term space exploration?
WERKHEISER: If we're going to explore longer-term exploration missions such as to Mars or to asteroids, we really can't be dependent on launching every single item we might ever need from Earth. We will need to be able to make what we need when we need it on demand. And this is the first step to establishing those capabilities.
WESTERVELT: I know when I pack for asteroid travel, I always pack a 3-D printer.
WERKHEISER: (Laughter) Oh, next time you go, you certainly will. We'll have it ready.
WESTERVELT: Niki Werkheiser is the project manager for the International Space Station 3-D printer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Niki, thanks for coming in.
WERKHEISER: Thank you so much.
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