There is little use in arguing the merits and usefulness of the 3D printer in myriad uses. That is not to say they don’t curry the occasional bit of controversy when someone puts the blueprints for a 3D printed gun on the Internet. A gun that could in theory avoid standard metal detectors. The International Space Station astronauts, however, are not printing weapons in space but on Monday were able to manufacture a faceplate for the printhead on the machine that printed the item in microgravity.

3D Printing international space station

International Space Station: Man’s first tool (in space)

“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,” said Made In Space CEO Aaron Kemmer. “We look at the operation of the 3D printer as a transformative moment, not just for space development, but for the capability of our species to live away from Earth.”

While most essential equipment arrives at the International Space Station with the necessary spare parts, additional parts need to be shipped from Earth and that is rarely two-day delivery even for astronauts whom happen to have Amazon Prime memberships. Rather, re-supply missions are both expensive and few and far between.

“This project demonstrates the basic fundamentals of useful manufacturing in space. The results of this experiment will serve as a stepping stone for significant future capabilities that will allow for the reduction of spare parts and mass on a spacecraft, which will change exploration mission architectures for the better,” said Made In Space Director of Research and Development Mike Snyder, also principal investigator for the experiment. “Manufacturing components on demand will yield more efficient, more reliable and less Earth dependent space programs in the near future.”

Tests to help next model printer

The “Glovebox” 3D printer is Made In Space’s first effort and astronauts will be asked to print a variety of tools, parts, and test coupons. Following their completion, they will be sent back to Earth where they will be compared to items made on Earth by the same printer. Made in Space will also test these items for torque, strength, accuracy and other factors and use the results to build the next generation printer that it will send to the ISS next year.