Screw you, spare parts

We did it! We 3D printed in space

Stuck in space without a part you desperately need? That’s not such a big deal anymore, thanks to a 3D printer that arrived at the International Space Station last month.

3D printer startup Made In Space has completed its first run of 21 prints on the machine. While 20 of the parts were designed in advance (and didn’t necessarily have an actual purpose), one printed item was designed to meet a real need. Made In Space co-founder Mike Chen wrote in a blog post that when ISS commander Barry Wilmore said he needed a ratcheting socket wrench, the startup quickly designed one and sent it to him on the ISS. He then printed it.

ISS commander Barry Wilmore with a ratcheting socket wrench printed on the International Space Station.
ISS commander Barry Wilmore with a ratcheting socket wrench printed on the International Space Station.

“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,” Chen wrote.

Chen referred to the process as “emailing.” The quotes are appropriate because it’s a fairly long process. Made In Space designs the part and then sends it to NASA using a combination of software. The NASA transmits it to the space station.

A selection of 3D printed items that were also printed on the International Space Station.
A selection of 3D printed items that were also printed on the International Space Station.

The first run of prints was meant to be a test. They will be returned to Earth, where they will undergo testing before Made In Space sends a second, improved printer to the ISS next year.

“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,” Chen wrote. “We’ll build what we need there, when we need it.”

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