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Butch operating 3D printer on ISS credit NASA

Butch operating 3D printer on ISS (photo credit: NASA)

Butch needed a wrench.
Usually this isn’t a big deal, but Butch couldn’t just drive over to Home Depot and grab a new one. “Butch” is ISS Commander Barry Wilmore, and he is currently orbiting the Earth.

ground prints of objects also printed in space

3D printed objects printed both on the Earth and on the ISS

Fortunately for Butch and the team aboard the International Space Station (ISS), they have a 3D printer at their disposal. With the impressive help of Made In Space, astronauts have been 3D printing objects they’ve needed (as well as a few to test the technology) since November. So far, 21 objects have been created via the ISS’ 3D printer. The same objects have also been 3D printed on terra firma, and will be compared to those printed in low-Earth orbit to see the effects, if any, of microgravity on the 3D printing process and pieces.

The first 20 objects were made using design files produced prior to the printer’s launch into orbit; the most recent, though, was made-to-order and was pretty much hardware “emailed” to space.

Huntsville Operations Support Center at Marshall Space Flight Center see 3D printer on screen credit NASA

Huntsville Operations Support Center, with the 3D printer seen on monitor (photo credit: NASA)

The team at Made In Space happened to overhear Butch talking about the need for a socket wrench, so they set about designing one in CAD to send up. They started out using Autodesk Inventor, and converted the file into G-code at the Made In Space office in Moffett Field, California, and then sent those files over to NASA, which, in turn, sent the files — via the Huntsville Operations Support Center — to the ISS.

Because files can be sent at the speed of light, the ISS team received the wrench significantly faster than they would have in years past, when they would have needed to wait for the next supply rocket launch. That’s a lot to go through just to get a small hand tool — and that’s a huge part of the entire Made In Space initiative.

3D printer in Microgravity Science Glovebox on ISS credit NASA

3D printer in Microgravity Science Glovebox on ISS (photo credit: NASA)

Once the CAD files were received on the ISS, they were sent to the 3D printer. The printer, in the Columbus laboratory module’s Microgravity Science Glovebox, then created the ratcheting socket wrench, which Butch pulled out as a ready-to-use tool. Effectively, Made In Space just “emailed” the ISS team the hardware they needed to get the job done, through sending the files that could be turned into a tangible tool.

It looks like the first file made on Earth and sent to space was a resounding success! This opens the door to a bright future for space travel and manned trips. If, for example, humanity does ever colonize Mars or go back to the moon, any broken or needed tools can be produced on an as-needed basis. This lessens costs and time required for resupplying crew members with valuable implements, and can enhance the process of experimentation in space.

ISS Commander Barry Butch Wilmore with ratcheting socket wrench credit NASA

ISS Commander Butch with his new 3D printed ratcheting socket wrench (photo credit: NASA)

I guess that’s official: we live in the future! Let us know your thoughts on this latest advance in the Hardware “Emailed” to ISS forum thread over at 3DPB.com.

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