space2We tend to dismiss distances these days as we can easily make phone calls halfway around the world and the internet has put down roots nearly everywhere. There is, however, still something awesome, in the true sense of the word, about being able to make a phone call to outer space. Not only is the fact that we can make it astounding, but that there can actually be someone on the other end is amazing.

On June 15, University of Alabama Huntsville student R.J. Hillan had the opportunity to make such a phone call and the photos show him smiling from ear to ear. Hillan is a big fan of the work done by NASA, as evidenced by the seven times he returned to Space Camp. But his call was about more than just expressing his enthusiasm for the space program. Instead, he was connecting with the International Space Station to talk about a tool that he designed and that was printed on the ISS’ 3D printer.

Hillan designed this tool as a response to the very first Future Engineers challenge, which asked for designs that could be useful to the astronauts on the ISS. The reward for winning was to have it 3D printed in space and now that the tool has been created, it’s only natural that its designer would want to follow up. The contest, a partnership between NASA and the ASME Foundation, has received such a supportive response that it is now in its fourth run.

space1The ergonomically designed piece, the Multi-Purpose Precision Maintenance Tool (MPMT), includes a variety of size sockets to allow the user to adapt to any number of size or shape objects. space3Recognizing that the 3D printed plastic versions are often just prototypes, NASA astronaut Tim Kopra praised the current version in his conversation with Hillan:

“One thing that often times comes with prototyping with 3D printing is there’s a plastic version. But even this plastic version I think would work up to a certain torque value, so well done, I think it’s really cool…I think this tool will be useful, we were just talking about it, Jeff and I, you know, what’s cool about it is oftentimes you’re having to look for a deep well socket, well, you don’t need a deep well socket when you have this!”

Hillan — who is the only student to ever have his design 3D printed in space, and is among a very small group of students to have ever spoken to astronauts while they are in space — positively glowed during his conversation with the astronauts.

The next step in the development of Hillan’s tool would be to produce a version in metal, but this is still a challenge to undertake in space. Currently, Made In Space has plans to send a metal recycler and possibly a metal printer to space, but because of the difficulties involved with 3D printing in these materials in zero gravity, it will still be some time before such operations can be realized.

Deanne Bell, the founder of Future Engineers, wants to be right there with them on the cutting edge as these developments continue to happen:

“That challenge was such a huge success that we’ve continued and we’re now on our fourth challenge, and we’re going to continue. It’s a really healthy partnership between NASA and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. It’s not just about a STEM challenge, it’s not just about a 3D printer going to space, it’s about how do we harness this and think about the future of space travel together?”

Below is a time-lapse video of the tool being 3D printed on the ISS. Discuss further in the Winning Design on ISS 3D Printer forum over at 3DPB.com.

[Source: WAAYTV / Images: NASA]
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