On Monday, Alabama got a very special delivery from outer space. For the first time, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) printed items using the station’s 3D printer, boxed it up, and sent it back to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. There, two engineers dismantled the package, and revealed the items to the public:
The best thing in the package is… drumroll… a ratchet wrench! A ratchet wrench that doesn’t totally look like a wrench, but is a wrench nonetheless.
The unboxing engineer says the tool was "uplinked from the ground, it wasn't on the printer's memory to begin with." Made In Space, the printer's manufacturer, explains that "the 'uplink' is the way we communicate with the ISS crew using a transmitting frequency from Earth to the International Space Station." That separates the wrench, printed in December, from other objects. Again, Made In Space explains:
"All of the objects that were printed in-space had previously been printed on the exact same printer before it was ever launched to increase the chances of success… the ratchet was designed, qualified, tested, and printed in space in less than a week."
Ultimately, the 3D printer is supposed to allow astronauts on the ISS to replace tools without having to wait for a payload from Earth. That means longer more productive stays on the station.
We're still holding out for 3D printed space pizza, though.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.