My colleagues and I just 3D-printed a ratcheting socket wrench on the International Space Station by typing some commands on our computer in California.
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.
We founded Made In Space, Inc. to design and build the first 3D printer for space. Our first printer was launched to the space station in September, and it printed its first object in November.
The socket wrench we just manufactured is the first object we designed on the ground and sent digitally to space, on the fly. 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. (The other 20 objects were designed before the printer flew to the space station.)
These first prints will be brought down to Earth for examination, where they will be compared to identical objects manufactured on the ground. We will use them to characterize the effects of long-term microgravity on our 3D-printing process, so that we can model and predict the performance of objects that we manufacture in space in the future.
So, how do we “email” hardware to space?
1. We design the part in CAD (usually Autodesk Inventor), and convert it into a format ready for the 3D printer called G-code.
2. We send it to NASA from our office in Moffett Field, CA, using a combination of in-house and NASA software.
3. NASA transmits it to the space station, by way of the Huntsville Operations Support Center, which links developers and researchers on the ground with their payloads on ISS.
4. The code for the part is received by the 3D printer, which is located in the Microgravity Science Glovebox in the Columbus laboratory module, where the object is manufactured layer by layer.
5. An astronaut removes the object from the printer.
Because it’s a lot faster to send digital data (which can travel at the speed of light) to space than it is to send physical objects (which involves waiting months to years for a rocket), it makes more sense to 3D-print things in space, when we can, instead of launching them.
On the ISS this type of technology translates to lower costs for experiments, faster design iteration, and a safer, better experience for the crew members, who can use it to replace broken parts or create new tools on demand. But what I’m really excited about is the impact this could have on human space exploration beyond Earth orbit.
When we do set up the first human colonies on the moon, Mars and beyond, we won’t use rockets to bring along everything we need. We’ll build what we need there, when we need it.