The 3D printer arrived on the space station in September as part of the 3D Print project, a collaboration between NASA and the California-based startup Made in Space, which designed and built the machine. The printer was installed in the station's Microgravity Science Glovebox on Nov. 17, then printed out its first part — a piece for the printer itself called an extruder plate — a week later.
All the other parts made by the printer during its first month of operations came from designs installed on the machine before its launch. So sending the wrench's file up from Earth marked another milestone, NASA officials said.
"For the printer's final test in this phase of operations, NASA wanted to validate the process for printing on demand, which will be critical on longer journeys to Mars," 3D Print program manager Niki Werkheiser, also of NASA Marshall, said in the same statement. "In less than a week, the ratchet was designed, approved by safety and other NASA reviewers, and the file was sent to space where the printer made the wrench in four hours."
The wrench, along with the 19 other objects built by the orbiting 3D printerthus far, will travel to Earth early next year, where engineers will compare the objects with ground samples produced by the same machine before it launched, NASA officials said.
"We can't wait to get these objects home and put them through structural and mechanical testing," Quincy Bean, of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, said in a statement. "We really won't know how well this process worked in space until we inspect the parts and complete these tests." [10 Ways 3D Printing Could Transform Space Travel].