Email Of The Year: NASA Emails Space Station Astronauts A New Wrench With 3D Printing

Tara West - Author

Dec. 21 2014, Updated 4:40 p.m. ET

Astronauts on the International Space Station were in need of a new wrench. However, thanks to 3D printing, they didn’t have to wait for a shipment to arrive in space. Instead, they were able to open a simple email attachment and print a new wrench.

According to Network World, the wrench took just four hours to print. Mike Chen, founder of Made in Space, which designed the zero gravity 3D printer used by the ISS, was listening to ISS chatter over the radio when he overheard ISS Commander Barry Wilmore say he needed a wrench. Chen jumped on the opportunity to prove how beneficial the new 3D printing machine can be.

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“We designed one in CAD and sent it up to him faster than a rocket ever could have. This is the first time we’ve ever ’emailed’ hardware to space.”

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The Medium reports that “the socket wrench we just manufactured is the first object we designed on the ground and sent digitally to space, on the fly.” The wrench was also a part of the first 21 objects ever manufactured outside of Earth’s surface.

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“It also marks the end of our first experiment—a sequence of 21 prints that together make up the first tools and objects ever manufactured off the surface of the Earth.”

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The CAD designers at Made in Space work closely with NASA on the printing projects. First, the designs are drawn up in the Made in Space offices. It is then emailed to NASA. After it is received by NASA, the attachment with the design documents is emailed to the printer in space where it is printed, layer by layer. After the printer has completed its process, an astronaut can then remove the newly manufactured item for inspection and use.

What is interesting about the 3D printing in space is all the possible uses for the future. When manned missions reach Mars or other areas in space, they will not have to wait for long distance shipments. Instead, they will be able to print needed items directly from the location’s 3D printers.

Though food printing hasn’t made its way to space just yet, the Foodini 3D printer can print edible complex food items using ingredients from a printer capsule.

What do you think the most beneficial use of 3D printing will be in space? Could 3D food printing also be an option for space travelers of the future? What do you think the future holds for 3D printing ventures?


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