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Astronauts 3D-Print Their First Tool on the ISS

Dec 29, 2014 05:47 PM EST

No, it's not exactly Star Trek, where we are replicating meals on demand, but astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) are actually "printing" their own tools for the first time, successfully using a 3D printer that was brought up to the station earlier this year.

The first tool these astronauts have printed was an early holiday present to themselves - a durable ratchet wrench designed by Noah Paul-Gin, an engineer at Made In Space Inc.

The wrench was printed with the Made in Space 3D-printer, which was sent up to the ISS last August. Since then, ISS crew have been putting the printer through its paces and testing its unique design, which accounts for microgravity conditions. This 5-inch-long ratchet wrench will be returned to the ground for analysis and testing, along with the other specialty parts printed in space.

Eventually, NASA hopes to use such printers to make specialized tools and parts on a moment's notice.

"For the printer's final test in this phase of operations, NASA wanted to validate the process for printing on demand, which will be critical on longer journeys to Mars," Niki Werkheiser, the space station 3D printer program manager at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, explained in a statement. "In less than a week, the ratchet was designed, approved by safety and other NASA reviewers, and the file was sent to space where the printer made the wrench in four hours."

According to the expert, if the crew desperately needs a tool or part that failed to arrive in a resupply mission, they will soon be able to simply print their own after being sent the appropriate schematics. Likewise, new tools can be designed and printed on-the-fly to address unexpected problems.

"If you can transmit a file to the station as quickly as you can send an email, it opens up endless possibilities," added Werkheiser. "We are breaking new ground not only in the way we manufacture in space but also in the way we operate and approve space hardware that is built in space, rather than launched from Earth."

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