541a047ae8f13.imageThe story of the human race and our fascination with and ensuing exploration of outer space thus far is of course, nothing short of amazing; in fact, just the thought of all we have done and all we now aspire to do gives me great pause, considering the unfathomable unknowns, and trying to imagine indeed what it’s like to put such a travel plan into place, and then actually send astronauts there (and bring them back).

From orbiting the Earth to traveling to the moon, to imagining ourselves roving around on Mars, sometimes our space missions have seemed less like a noble cause and more like a race to beat other countries to the punch, but whatever the reason, the result seems to be the same each time. We want to go further and we want to stay there longer; in fact, it’s no secret that we might even be thinking about living there one day, working, raising families, and exploring even further from that point.

Most of us have read a few sci-fi books in our time, and have seen a lot of exciting movies accentuated by hot buttery popcorn and cold drinks, escaping reality—not really creating one like the NASA folks are responsible for. Some of the fiction we create about our relationship with space is heartwarming; some ends in predictable screams with even the best of characters being carried off to be eaten later by salivating creatures with leathery skin and many teeth. Space monsters we’ll have to take as they come though. The true challenge is in surviving the basics in unknown space environments, with an emphasis on one word: sustainability.

Currently, astronauts have fabricated and highlighted the making of another new tool in space. You may have skimmed over the headlines lately, seeing a wrench. What we see, however, with the creation and exercising of new concept and tools, is a dramatic new story being written: 3D printing in space.

iss-3d-printer-wrench-2

Image: NASA/Made In Space/Lowe’s

California’s Made In Space has had everything to do with this journey too. They created the first Zero-G 3D printer that rode, amidst great worldwide enthusiasm and support, to the International Space Station in the fall of 2014. But in recent months, an updated version was sent to the ISS via NASA aboard the Cygnus spacecraft. And this one is going to lend true heft to the AMF and all of the innovations ahead.

While we all greatly enjoyed seeing images of that famous very first wrench being fabricated at the ISS by Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore, there’s a new wrench in town now. Hot off the press from the updated 3D printer in the Additive Manufacturing Facility, also created by Made In Space, not only are the capabilities of the latest 3D printer expanded, but this wrench is a bit more of a rock star than the last, with the added feature of an attachment clip so that astronauts can wear it close during maintenance work. Not only that, the wrench bears the name of toolmaker Kobalt, basically serving as a mini-ad from space, as Made In Space and Lowe’s actually partnered in the launch of the new printer to the AMF. This is obviously a progressive project on numerous levels, from the futuristic sponsorship to the idea of operating such technology away from the security of Earth.

Jenny Popis, manager of corporate public relations at Lowe’s, recently told Space.com that the wrench “demonstrates the capability of the AMF to manufacture purpose-specific tools and hardware on demand.”

 

“Astronauts and researchers can get creative and print items they need within the size constraints of the printer bed, which is 10 cm x 14 cm x 10 cm [3.9 by 5.5 by 3.9 inches],” she added.

The Additive Manufacturing Facility is basically just a 3D printing lab made unique by its geographical location. It’s certainly a valuable commodity though, as it allows for numerous other entities, many of whom are lining up to use it, to develop and test products directly within the space environment—rather than just hoping for the best once they are ready to use their often pricey components developed for aerospace.

new wrench

Image: NASA/Made In Space/Lowe’s

According to Made In Space, this 3D printing space facility “can be accessed by any Earth-bound customer for job-specific work, like a machine shop in space. Example use cases include a medical device company prototyping space-optimized designs, or a satellite manufacturer testing new deployable geometries, or creating tools for ISS crew members.”

This highly progressive innovation hub apparently already has a number of bookings lined up too. Its presence on the ISS will offer substantial, positive impact in the study of areas like microgravity and weightlessness, which are highly relevant issues for astronauts in space—and extremely difficult to learn about and test for on Earth. Companies interested in testing at the AMF on the ISS can, however, expect price tags from $6,000 to $30,000.

 And while the ability to perform research and development at a space outpost isn’t just a novel idea but an extremely useful one also, right now what 3D printing in the AMF is showing us most clearly is how astronauts can begin learning and demonstrating that aforementioned self-sustainabiity so necessary for longevity in space.

Building, maintaining, and fixing items and structures will be a priority for astronauts and crew—and this latest wrench, allowed to be clipped onto a belt for handy use, is a great example of the continuing story regarding 3D printing and space.

Just a beginning, decades from now we will look back perhaps from colonizing Mars and marvel at the first rudimentary tools that helped us realize how what we could do, how far we could go, and how to make staying there a success. Do you see 3D printing playing a continued role at the ISS? Let’s discuss your thoughts over in the 3D Printed Wrench from AMF forum over at 3DPB.com.

[Source: Space.com]

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