The brand spakin’ new printer aboard the International Space Station (ISS) was put through its final paces in December. In fact, NASA designed, approved and transmitted a design file to the printer in less than a week. The company that was contracted to build the 3-D printer, Made in Space Inc., designed the ratchet wrench that was then transmitted to the printer and created using 104 layers of melted plastic. This was the first live test of how the printer will be used in the future on the ISS. All equipment sent to the ISS has to go through a review process, so all items constructed by the printer will be transmitted from the ground to space after approval. While a plastic ratchet wrench seems like a very useful tool for the crew, it won’t be used on the ISS, instead it will be sent back down to undergo testing. Along with the wrench are 20 other parts that were created by the printer, but they were already preprogrammed into the printer before it was delivered to the ISS.
The 3-D printer has benefits to both the crew of the ISS and to Earth-based manufacturing. It can take months for a resupply mission to deliver much needed tools to the crew and due to limited capacity, certain equipment may take years for approval and delivery. With an on board 3-D printer, that wait time can shrink down to a week. Long-term, a 3-D printer such as this will end up on Orion and other deep space missions where access to supplies is nonexistent once you leave Earth’s atmosphere. They have even been testing printers for food production!
For us Earth dwellers, 3-D printing has benefits in manufacturing objects that are challenging to make in higher gravity. One of the printed objects is difficult to create on Earth due to the sag created by Earth’s gravity. All of the 3-D printed parts will be returned to Earth to be compared to identical objects made from the same printer before it was launched into space.
To encourage young minds to utilize this new technology, NASA along with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Foundation ran a competition for students in grades K through 12 to design a 3-D model of an object that they think will be useful to astronauts. The winner will get to see their design come to life as it is printed on the ISS. The Design a Space Tool Challenge is the first part of a long-term program called Future Engineers which consists of a series of challenges along with video lessons on design, 3-D printing and general science that encompass the ISS, micro-gravity and printing. While the first round closed on December 15th, you can check out the submissions here. They range from a modular wrench, to C-clamps, to a space football!