NASA signaled the beginning of a much safer era of space travel, Wednesday, emailing the design of a socket wrench to astronauts so they could print it out in orbit.
The immediate implication for NASA and passengers on its risky ride is that, properly trained and equipped, the crew of a space flight should now be able to repair most things even if there's no replacement for the part that broke, or if the repair itself requires a special tool no one thought to bring along.
It was not a spontaneous socket wrench, however. And it was not the first tool to be printed on the International Space Station (ISS).
It was the first tool to be designed on the ground, sent into orbit, printed and used successfully in zero gravity in space, according to Made In Space, the 3D-printer manufacturer that – as part of a development contract with NASA – built the printer, created the design, and got both into the hands of the ISS crew.
The Zero-G Printer is part of a project launched under a development agreement between NASA and Made In Space to see if microgravity would affect the additive material that goes into the tools, or the ability of the printer to lay the material down where it needed to be.
The machine was tested in one of NASA's parabolic-looping vomit-comet microgravity planes, launched into orbit on a SpaceX resupply mission Nov. 17, and has been happily churning out monotonously beige clips and containers and other simple parts – all from designs that went into orbit with the printer, and which had been test-printed successfully on the ground.
The socket wrench – actually just the ratchet handle – in the picture is the first "uplink tool," according to Made In Space – meaning it's the first one whole design was sent up to the station to be printed rather than being there already.
It's a trivial difference when you're talking about a relatively simple, solid piece of plastic whose only unique value is that it fits the hole of a particular socket to provide a lever for turning.
NASA didn't hire Made In Space to make ratchets, though. It wants 3D printers so that astronauts won't be in quite as tight spot if some bit of NASA's psychotically overplanned flight preparation and design requirements, with doubly redundant failover redundancy systems and flight-equipment checklists as longer than the mission instructions should ever allow something to be forgotten.
The process isn't advanced enough to deliver what you'd call a practical solution, under most circumstances.
It took four hours to print the ratchet, which is a lot longer than it would take to run down to the hardware store to get one – if you weren't in orbit. And the fuel it took to get the 3D printer and its raw material into orbit meant the ratchet ended up costing more than it would have if Leonardo da Vinci had made it himself, by hand, out of gold. Which is entirely not the point.
In this case the printed tool wasn't critical to the survival of the space station. If something critical had broken and NASA had no way to replace it without another launch and the risk of the lives of another crew.
Judged as a ratchet, the first space tool is a gross disappointment. Judged as a way to get a critical part to a place it's not possible to go, the only conclusion is that it's a pretty nice ratchet.