Twist and shout: NASA prints 3-D wrench in space

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Bringing supplies to astronauts on the International Space Station can be a little screwy, leaving astronauts waiting for the next costly and risky resupply mission.

This week, thanks to 3-D printing, astronaut and ISS commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore had a wrench he needed manufactured by a printer in just four hours.

The ratcheting socket wrench was the first “uplink tool” printed in space, according to Grant Lowery, marketing and communications manager for Made In Space, which built the printer in partnership with NASA. The tool was designed on the ground, emailed to the space station and then manufactured.

From start to finish, the process took less than a week.

Made in Space’s 3-D printer is the first to operate in zero gravity, and printed its first object in orbit — a part for the printer, ironically — in November.

“This means that we could go from having a part designed on the ground to printed in orbit within an hour to two from start to finish,” Niki Werkheiser, NASA’s 3-D print manager, said in a press release when the printer was sent to the ISS in September. “The on-demand capability can revolutionize the constrained supply chain model we are limited to today and will be critical for exploration missions.”

The goal for the project is to create in-space manufacturing, especially as missions venture farther from Earth.

Ultimately, Lowery said the wrench and other objects will be sent back to assess whether there are any functional differences between those samples printed in space versus those on the ground.

By Sarah LeTrent