International Space Station commander Barry Wilmore suddenly needed a wrench for his work as he circled the globe – so NASA took the unprecedented step of sending him the files required to 3D print a socket wrench.
Mike Chen, the founder of Made In Space, says the process worked like a charm.
"My colleagues and I just 3D printed a ratcheting socket wrench on the International Space Station by typing some commands on our computer in California," Chen said. "We'd 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."
The story highlights the efficiencies and potential of 3D printing technology in general and how it may one day prevent unnecessary inventory or waiting for parts to arrive. Astronauts, sailors on Navy vessels and people in remote locations might one day have access to the sorts of devices and products they need with nothing more than a reliable internet connection and a 3D printer in their toolbox.
"What I'm really excited about is the impact this could have on human space exploration beyond Earth orbit," Chen says. "When we do set up the first human colonies on the moon, Mars, and beyond, we won't use rockets to bring along everything we need. We'll build what we need there, when we need it."
Since the first 3D print job was completed on the ISS in November, there have been 19 other jobs output in space. This one, the twentieth, was notable and historic in that it was the first of the jobs designed on Earth and then sent to the heavens digitally.
Made in Space came about as a result of work done at Singularity University. Singularity is a private, nine-week-long course of study held at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. covering a range of fields including nanotechnology, biotechnology and bioinformatics.
"On the ISS, this type of technology translates to lower costs for experiments, faster design iteration, and a safer, better experience for the crew members who can use it to replace broken parts or create new tools on demand," Chen says. "What I'm really excited about is the impact this could have on human space exploration beyond Earth orbit."