Long gone are the times when astronauts had to wait several months for a shipment of new supplies. The International Space Station received a 3D printer in September, courtesy of Made In Space Inc. The printer was put to use in November when it manufactured its first object: a wrench.
The idea came on one occasion when astronaut Barry Wilmore sent a request for a new ratcheting socket wrench. Usually, he would have waited months until the next flight supply would have been sent to the ISS.
Instead of undergoing the same protocol, Made In Space founder Mike Chen responded to Wilmore’s needs by sending a 3-D printer to the station. On Earth, NASA scientists would later design the ratchet, and send the instructions for the printer via e-mail.
Back on the space station, astronauts would just follow the instructions and program the printer to manufacture the object of their desire. Mike Chen stated that “this is the first time we’ve ever “e-mailed” hardware to space.” The goal of this project is to help astronauts rely more on what they have close to them and less on their colleagues back on Earth.
This new feature comes with a great number of advantages. Sending data via e-mail is much faster than sending actual objects to space (digital data can travel with the speed of light compared to the months of waiting implied by the alternative). Thus it is much more efficient to print the objects directly at the ISS. This also means astronauts saving time and NASA spending less on transport.
3D printing in space could also save lives if we consider the infamous Apollo 13 mission when astronauts were forced to come up with a solution to constructing new Carbon Dioxide scrubbers from whatever they had immediately available. They were under time pressure as clean oxygen levels were rapidly dropping. Back on Earth, NASA engineers were struggling to come up with a method to solve the crisis.
Would things developed differently if they had a 3D printer on board? What if they were able to manufacture those custom-designed objects they needed just by following a set of instructions?
This new technique will become even more useful once space travel evolves and human race starts colonizing the Moon, Mars or even planets located at greater distances. 3D printing is a quick and cheap method of supplying space stations with the needed tools. Chen argued this by saying: “We’ll build what we need there, when we need it.”
Image Source: Wired