Photo courtesy of NASA
ISS Commander Butch Wilmore holds up the ratchet after removing it from the print tray.

NASA Just Emailed a Wrench to Space

Dec. 22, 2014
This ratcheting socket wrench is the first truly functional print of the International Space Station's on-board 3-D printer.

A couple of weeks ago, engineers at Made In Space overheard International Space Station Commander, Barry Wilmore, mention that his crew needed a new ratcheting socket wrench on board the ISS.

Normally, such a request would have taken months of planning to complete and could have only been fulfilled as part of a multi-million-dollar, extremely risky supply run from Earth.

But that's not how it works anymore.

According to a Made In Space blog entry, after hearing the request, its engineers went to work on designs for a ratchet that could be 3-D printed in space. Even better, they designed a tool that included all internal moving parts without any support material that was capable of building in a single print – a perfect design for the challenges of space manufacturing.

Within a week, the design was finished and tested and sample prints had been brought to NASA for qualification.

Then, late last week, NASA emailed the files to the Zero-G Printer onboard the ISS and – after just four hours of printing – Commander Willmore had his ratchet.

The ISS' new ratcheting wrench was 3-D printed as one piece, including all moving parts, without requiring any support material to remove after completion. PHOTO: Made In Space

This is the first of what should become a steady stream of 3-D printing stories coming out of the ISS in 2015.

After SpaceX delivered Made In Space's Zero-G Printer in September, 3-D printing has been quickly finding a place with the crew. It began with a custom-printed nameplate for the printer itself – a kind of token "functional" print to kick off the project – and 20 other prints that were preloaded before delivery.

The ratchet is something different, though.

This is the firstly truly function test of the printer – a design created by a centralized team on the fly to meet a specific need and printed exactly where it is needed.

It fulfills both the promise of the space-printing project and also the localized printing dreams back down here on Earth. One day, this model could be used to print on-demand parts and supplies for military and remote populations cut off from normal supply routes, as well as home printers downloading new designs.

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