During his expedition to the International Space Station last year, Commander Barry Wilmore misplaced a torque wrench. Orbiting approximately 200 miles above earth made it seemingly impossible for Wilmore to easily replace the tool. But the astronaut did, indeed, have a new wrench within days. Employees at the Made In Space offices in California who were in contact with the astronauts overheard the commander complain about his lost wrench, designed a replacement and transmitted the design file to the space station. Within two hours, the space station created the wrench on a 3-D printer, and the commander had a useable tool.
Additive manufacturing in space may sound like a plot to a sci-fi movie, but it’s become reality thanks to Made In Space Inc., which has developed 3-D printing technology for use in zero-gravity. Founded in 2010, the company hopes that constructing materials, tools and structures in space, rather than on earth and then sending them into the galaxy, will accelerate space development.
“Our ultimate goal is to help people live permanently in space,” says Andrew Rush, president of Made In Space. “One of the principle ways we can realize that goal is by taking manufacturing off the planet, doing it in space and developing the tools that will help people work better in space.” Made In Space decided to focus its efforts on additive manufacturing because, as Rush says, “A 3-D printer is a meta tool; it’s a tool that makes other tools.”
The first Made In Space 3-D printer – the Zero-G Printer – uses an extrusion-based printing method to layer hot liquefied acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) thermoplastics. It was launched to the International Space Station in September 2014 under a partnership agreement between Made In Space and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The printer is being utilized to test the long-term effects of microgravity on 3-D printing and understand how the technology can enable future space exploration. In its initial run, 21 parts were printed on the space station, the first one being a faceplate for the printer itself.