First Ever Parts Emailed To Space

The shocking thing is not that this happened. The shocking thing is how normal it seems. An astronaut inside a space station needed a ratcheting socket wrench. Someone else on Earth drew it up on a computer then e-mailed the astronaut. The astronaut clicked a button and then the tool was squirted out of a nozzle. Then he picked up and used the tool for the job he needed done. No big deal.

The story itself is almost uneventful – of course we can do these things now. Sure, it happens to be the first time in mankind’s history we have done this. Yes, it is revolutionary to be able to create tools on demand rather than wait months for one to be built planet-side and put onto the next resupply rocket. But, amateurs living in places without even widespread electricity or running water have already built these machines from actual garbage.

Every once in a while a story slaps us with how much the future is now.

These particular 3d prints were duplicated on the ground, and both sets preserved for future comparative analysis to see if microgravity has any effect on 3d prints. They have an eye on sending them to Mars, a journey where resupply is more than just a couple-month inconvenience.

See the first link above for more detail and photos of NASA’s 3d printer and the Microgravity Science Glovebox in the Columbus laboratory module.

24 thoughts on “First Ever Parts Emailed To Space

  1. Now this is sexy!!! (Various catcalls and someone saying “I’d tap dat” in the background)
    My prediction is that there will be no difference for extruded parts, but sintered parts will be a different story.

    1. I think extruding in space will be much more exciting. Think of the incredible overhangs without supports you could do in zero-g!.
      Of course there shall be all shorts of necessary tricky refinements, speed, shrinkage, angle vectors to get tuned, but I can see an extrusion printer in space perform some very nifty stunts.

  2. I’m a little surprised that there isn’t a 3/4″ wrench on the ISS already. Also a little concerned that the ISS might be held together with plastic nuts and bolts.

    Slightly more seriously, how does 3d printing even work in microgravity? Does the extruded plastic not need to ‘fall’ onto the plate/model? Perhaps the nozzle is close enough for the plastic to stick?

    1. Actually, using plastic nuts and bolts is a good idea seeing as you wouldn’t have to worry about thermal expansion and contraction coefficients that would be normal for metal versions.

      As for your questions, I’m thinking high pressure/vacuum helps with that but I could be wrong.

    2. It relies on a certain amount of compression from to extruder to force the layers together. So if yoj have a .3 mm nozzle you put the tip .15 mm away and the extruded layer will melt with tbe previous. Subsequent layers can be farther away, but all rely on compression to join the layers.

    3. In FDM the plastic doesn’t fall. It’s forced out of the Nozzle at some pressure and is squidged down onto the plate / previous layer by the flat around the hole in the Nozzle.

      You can run 3d printers upside down on earth as long as you have good enough bed adhesion. Not sure how well bridging would work upside down on earth, but is one of the things that I’d like to see how it works in microgravity.

    4. Well before they sent an actual printer to ISS, there was a video of a simple test – turn the printer upside down and print. Worked with no problems whatsoever.
      The nozzle is very close to the print bed and later the printed part, just like in earth-based printers, you do not need gravity for anything.
      Natural hot air convection might cause a few problems (in microgravity hot air doesn’t rise, it just sits there) with big parts, but it’s nothing a small fan can’t fix.

      btw if you are concerned about plastic nuts and bolts – I’m pretty sure there is a fair bit of glue used for structural purposes, just like with modern airliners, since bolts are not the best for fiber composites :P

  3. Actually, using plastic nuts and bolts is a good idea seeing as you wouldn’t have to worry about thermal expansion and contraction coefficients that would be normal for metal versions.

    As for your questions, I’m thinking high pressure/vacuum helps with that but I could be wrong.

  4. There has to be at least 2 snap-on USA made 3/4 ratchets on the freaking space shuttle. This is just more hurr durr 3d printing nonsense. Ratchets made from steel fail often enough, you’d have to immediately start printing another plastic one as soon as the first is done, the plastic one will fail to ratchet in a hot second.

    1. I think the point is to test and show the level of speed and complexity they can achieve in a way that is just a little more presentable than a test bauble or a small gasket or knob that looks like nothing we use on our pale blue dot.

      Right off the bat I can see how this can impact various types of ISS experiments in the near future. Instead of having to send hardware for all possible outcomes, one could simply send the bare necessities and print out what you need based on the outcome.

      Imagine the cost reduction if they could actually repurpose used parts as filament again over there. Seeing as every gram counts in keeping this puppy up-and-running, I’d say that this semi-publicity show was done for all the good reasons.

  5. Most NASA and other government agency stuff is not copyrighted nor patented. So, can the public download the actual 3D models used for this ratchet and the 20 other objects that were printed?

      1. Thats just a non functioning lookalike from photos.
        Im sure what we are really after is the files for the functioning ratchet.

        There are plenty of ratchets on the usual repositories.
        Theyve probably just bortowed one of those and tweaked it for there use.
        Would be good to find out which one.

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