When astronaut Barry Wilmore realized he needed a socket wrench, he had one problem. Wilmore is currently on board the International Space Station orbiting 200 miles above the earth making a trip to the hardware store inconvenient. What did NASA do to help him? They emailed him a wrench.
In November, Wilmore assembled the ISS’s very first 3D printer. The design was collaboration between NASA and the company, Made In Space and marked the first time a 3D printer had been deployed in space. About a month later, Wilmore noted to mission control that a socket wrench would be a very useful tool to have on the space station.
In the past, the request would be noted and the wrench would be included in the next supply shipment for the station. In this scenario, astronauts could have to wait months before receiving the requested tool. Now, thanks to the 3D printer, months became only a few short hours.
Instead of heading out to the local hardware store to buy one to add to the next cargo shipment, Made In Space did a mock up of a model on CAD in its office and NASA emailed the wrench to Wilmore. He then ran the designs through the printer that output twenty separate parts for the socket wrench. He took these twenty parts and assembled them into the exact model of socket wrench he had requested.
This marks the first time a 3D printer has been used to create a tool for use in space but it almost certainly isn’t the last. With the advancements in 3d printing technology, NASA may soon be able to email more than a wrench to space offering astronauts much easier access to tools and other supplies without having to wait for the next supply mission from Earth.[Photo Credit: Wired]