When NASA emailed a ratchet wrench file to International Space Station commander Barry Wilmore on December 19th, it marked the first time a file could be 3D modeled on earth and sent up to space for manufacturing.
While it isn’t the first time an object has been printed in space (there have been over 20 since a Made in Space 3D printer was sent up in November of 2014), the occasion was no less exciting.
“We had overheard ISS Commander Barry Wilmore … mention over the radio that he needed one, so we designed one in CAD and sent it up to him faster than a rocket ever could have,” said Made in Space founder Mike Chen in a post on Medium.
“This is the first object created on the ground and sent digitally to space to meet the needs of an astronaut. It also marks the end of our first experiment—a sequence of 21 prints that together make up the first tools and objects ever manufactured off the surface of the Earth. We will use them to characterize the effects of long-term microgravity on our 3D-printing process, so that we can model and predict the performance of objects that we manufacture in space in the future.”
Altogether, the wrench project took just under 4 hours to frame the problem, develop a solution, model the final product and ultimately, transmit it to Wilmore on the ISS.
The final wrench, which is 4.48 inches long and 1.29 inches wide, was designed by Made in Space engineer Noah Paul-Gin. The final print consisted of 104 layers of ABS plastic extruded over a four hour period.
“We wanted to work this just like we would for tools that the astronauts will 3D print and use on the station,” said Nikki Werkheiser, NASA’s Space Station 3D printer program manager. “This wrench will not be used in space, but what if it were a tool the crew needed? We are breaking new ground not only in the way we manufacture in space but also in the way we operate and approve space hardware that is built in space, rather than launched from Earth.”
The 3D printed ratchet wrench and other parts that were printed as a part of the program will ultimately be returned to the ground early next year for analysis, testing and comparison to the samples which were made on the ground using the same Made in Space 3D printer. Once the testing is complete, Made in Space will move forward with the next iteration of their 3D printer design for interstellar 3D printing.
In the meantime, curious earthlings are now able to 3D print their own wrench—the very same file that was sent to space—on their own earth-bound 3D printer.