Launching anything into space requires a massive amount of time, money and resources. So what if astronauts could just “print out” anything they need? Now they can! Astronauts on the International Space Station recently used a 3D printer to print out a socket wrench, which they then used. Can a Star Trek-style replicator be far behind?
Astronaut and Space Station Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore was able to fabricate a wrench with instructions emailed to him from NASA and Made in Space – the manufacturer of the printer. According to Grant Lowery, the marketing and communications manager for Made in Space, this is the first tool ever made in space from an uplink. Twenty-one other items have been made in space using the printer and previously provided plans. All of the items will be brought back to Earth to study.
“This means that we could go from having a part designed on the ground to printed in orbit within an hour to two from start to finish” said Niki Werkheiser, NASA’s 3D printing manager. “The on-demand capability can revolutionize the constrained supply chain model we are limited to today and will be critical for exploration missions.”
The printer is only the size of a small microwave, and it could revolutionize not only the space station’s ability to get things done, but the future of space exploration. Without the need for a continual resupply, ships could travel farther and farther while simply 3D printing items they might need.
“I remember when the tip broke off a tool during a mission,” recalls NASA astronaut TJ Creamer in a NASA press release. “I had to wait for the next shuttle to come up to bring me a new one. Now, rather than wait for a resupply ship to bring me a new tool, in the future, I could just print it.”
The printer uses extruded plastic to build the objects – placing layer upon layer until the object is complete.