3D Printing & Imaging Science
Emailing Hardware into Space
ISS Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore holds up the ratcheting socket wrench on the space station right after it was 3D-printed it (Credit: NASA).
Commander Barry Wilmore holds up the 3d printed socket wrench. (Credit: NASA)

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.

The ground-side prints of some of the objects that were printed in space.
The ground-side prints of some of the objects that were printed in space. (Credit: Made in Space)

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.

NASA has uploaded the STL file, so if you’re interested you can now print out your own copy of the first tool to ever be 3d printed in space.

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Alasdair Allan is a scientist, author, hacker and tinkerer, who is spending a lot of his time thinking about the Internet of Things. In the past he has mesh networked the Moscone Center, caused a U.S. Senate hearing, and contributed to the detection of what was—at the time—the most distant object yet discovered.

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