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Refabricator installed
NASA astronaut Anne McClain installs Tethers Unlimited’s Refabricator recycling and 3-D printing payload aboard the International Space Station. (NASA Photo via Tethers Unlimited)

NASA astronauts on the International Space Station have installed the first integrated 3-D printer and plastic recycler to go into orbit, and it’s currently being checked out for experiments that are due to start in the next few weeks.

The Refabricator, a device about the size of a dorm-room refrigerator, was built at Tethers Unlimited’s headquarters in Bothell, Wash., under the terms of a $2.5 million contract from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program. It was tested at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama and sent up to the station on a Northrop Grumman Cygnus resupply flight in November.

Tethers Unlimited engineers supported the space station operations team while NASA astronaut (and Spokane native) Anne McClain installed the Refabricator into the space station’s experiment racks.

“The Refabricator is key in demonstrating a sustainable model to fabricate, recycle and reuse parts and waste materials on extended space exploration missions,” Niki Werkheiser, manager of In-Space Manufacturing at Marshall Space Flight Center, said today in a news release.

Tethers Unlimited CEO Rob Hoyt said he was “incredibly proud and thankful for the hard work put in by our team, the astronauts, and the NASA In Space Manufacturing Team to get the Refabricator all the way to installation aboard the space station.”

The Refabricator tests will follow up on previous experiments in zero-G, 3-D printing that haven’t involved recycling. The first 3-D printer in space was built by Made In Space, a California-based venture, and delivered to the space station in 2014.

Hoyt said the coming experiments should demonstrate in-space manufacturing capabilities aimed at reducing the costs and risks for long-duration missions to the moon and Mars.

“It will provide future astronauts the ability to manufacture tools, replacement parts, utensils and medical implements when they need them, and greatly reduce the logistics costs for manned space missions by reusing waste materials and minimizing the amount of replacement parts that must be launched from Earth,” Hoyt said.

The uncrewed Cygnus cargo craft that delivered the Refabricator, known as the S.S. John Young, was set loose from the station today after an 81-day stay. It will deploy five nanosatellites and conduct other experiments, and make a programmed descent through the atmosphere to burn up for disposal a little more than two weeks from now.

Tethers Unlimited works on a variety of space technologies, including in-space manufacturing as well as programmable radios for small satellites and advanced space propulsion modules.

The company reduced its workforce by 20 percent last month, largely because the government shutdown held up contract payments from NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In an email, Hoyt said that the situation has improved now that the shutdown is over — even though a second shutdown may be looming on Feb. 15.

“We did get the big payment that was held up by the shutdown, and the NASA contract people have been working hard to get us and other contractors paid before Shutdown 2.0.  So we are in a much better position now,” Hoyt wrote. “Things are starting to pick up again.”

Hoyt said Tethers Unlimited has put in proposals for several additional flight programs. “If any of them come in, we’ll be staffing up again for sure,” he said.

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