HOUSTON – The first of about 20 planned small plastic parts, or coupons, emerged last week from Made in Space Inc., the 3-D printer delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) in September.

The printer served as a prototype for a space additive manufacturing capability that may one day become an essential part of NASA’s tool kit for human deep space exploration.

The initial demonstration on Nov. 24 produced a small, off-white faceplate for the printer itself. The faceplate comprised layered acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) thermoplastic resin. Emblazoned with "Made In Space/NASA," the inaugural test part was fashioned to serve as an access panel to the extruder on the tabletop printer.

The device was installed in the station’s Microgravity Glove Box on Nov. 17 by NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore. The enclosure provides air circulation and thermal isolation as well as a power source.

"For the first time, it’s no longer true that rockets are the only way to send hardware to space," Mike Chen, chief strategy officer for Made In Space, said in a Nov. 25 statement marking the milestone. The Moffett Field, California-based startup developed the prototype for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center under the agency’s Small Business Innovation Research Program.

The current demonstration calls for the station-based production of coupons, or small sample parts, that will returned to Earth for comparison to identical components generated by Made In Space on the ground. The follow-up assessment will compare the space- and ground-manufactured components layer by layer for tensile strength, torque, and flexibility.

The space agency is looking to additive manufacturing as a potential source of critical spare parts, manufactured from metals as well as plastics, for human missions assigned to the exploration of asteroids and Mars, as well as the lunar environs.

The technology could reshape future orbital and deep-space resupply strategies by lowering the logistic mass included in initial and subsequent launchings. It could also possibly permit the recycling of critical materials.

A recent National Research Council study endorsed the promise of space 3-D printing, but urged mission planners to pace their enthusiasm with rigorous, step-by-step testing and demonstration of the sort underway aboard the six-person orbiting science laboratory. The return of the initial test components and their evaluation will permit refinements to a second Made In Space prototype printer, scheduled for launch to the ISS in early 2015.

SpaceX, which delivered the first prototype 3-D printer to the station aboard a September commercial resupply mission, is scheduled to launch its next Dragon cargo delivery and return missions in mid-December and early February.