History was made last month when design files were sent to the International Space Station and used to 3D print a ratchet wrench in space. It was the first time 3D printer designs were ever sent from earth to space, to meet the needs of astronauts.
“In less than a week, the ratchet was designed, approved by safety and other NASA reviewers, and the file was sent to space where the printer made the wrench in four hours,” explained Niki Werkheiser, the space station 3-D printer program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Werkheiser says this kind of on-demand 3D printing “will be critical on longer journeys to Mars.”
The wrench was designed by an engineer from Made In Space Inc. The northern California company that NASA contracted to design, build and operate the special printer that was used, which can operate in zero gravity. The zero-gravity printer uses additive manufacturing to make the wrench, depositing 104 layers of plastic.
“We are breaking new ground not only in the way we manufacture in space but also in the way we operate and approve space hardware that is built in space, rather than launched from Earth,” Werkheiser says. “If you can transmit a file to the station as quickly as you can send an email, it opens up endless possibilities for all the types of things that you can make from CubeSat components to experiment hardware. We even may be able to make objects that previously couldn’t even be launched to space.”