The first 3d printer in space was launched aboard the Dragon CRS-4 mission to the International Space Station back in September, and then printed its first part in late November—just around the time when station took delivery of the espresso machine.
Since then the printer has been hard at work printing a series of twenty items that will be brought back to Earth and compared to their counterparts which were printed on the surface.
However in mid-December, just before Christmas, the printer had another first. The first ever tool designed on the ground and emailed, on the fly, to an astronaut onboard the space station.
We had overheard ISS Commander Barry Wilmore (who goes by “Butch”) mention over the radio that he needed one, so 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. — Mike Chen, Founder, Made in Space
While the wrench isn’t the first object ever printed in space, it’s the first designed to meet a need, and do actual work in the hands of an astronaut.
The wrench in action.
In a way this makes the wrench far more important than the twenty test prints that came before. It shows exactly why a 3d printer—and the other just-in-time tools of the next industrial revolution—are going to be crucial when we finally move out of orbit, and on to Mars.