Wow. I knew the ISS now had a 3D printer, because it’s much more practical – that is, possible – to make needed equipment on board than it would be to pack all potentially needed equipment, but even knowing that, this story is very cool.
For the first time ever, hardware designed on the ground has been emailed to space to meet the needs of an astronaut. From a computer in California, Mike Chen of Made In Space and colleagues just 3D-printed a ratcheting socket wrench on the International Space Station. “We had overheard ISS Commander Barry Wilmore (who goes by “Butch”) mention over the radio that he needed one,” Chen writes in Medium this week. So they designed one and sent it up.
“The socket wrench we just manufactured is the first object we designed on the ground and sent digitally to space, on the fly,” he adds. It’s a lot faster to send data wirelessly on demand than to wait for a physical object to arrive via rockets, which can take months or even years.
The team started by designing the tool on a computer, then converting it into a 3D-printer-ready format. That’s then sent to NASA, which transmits the wrench to the space station. Once the code is received by the 3D printer, the wrench is manufactured: Plastic filament is heated and extruded layer by layer. The ISS tweeted this photo earlier this week, and you can see more pictures of the very cool wrench-printing process here.
And there’s Butch with the new wrench:
photo credit: Commander Barry Wilmore shows off a 3D printed ratchet / NASA
Pretty damn amazing.