3D Printing in Space Challenges Young Innovators to “Think Outside the Box”

In the design of an item or tool astronauts living and working on the International Space Station could use to complete a number of different tasks 

First 3D printer, Portal, to be tested onboard the International Space Station. Credits: Made In Space
First 3D printer, Portal, to be tested onboard the International Space Station.
Credits: Made In Space

Space news (Space Education Programs: Future Engineers; 3D Printing in Space Challenges, “Think Outside the Box” challenge) – design an item that assembles, telescopes, hinges, accordions, grows, or expands to become larger than the printing bounds of the AMF 3D printer on the International Space Station – 

Made in Space CTO Jason Dunn (left) and P.I. of the 3DP Experiment Mike Snyder look to optimize the first 3D printer for space.
Made in Space CTO Jason Dunn (left) and P.I. of the 3DP Experiment Mike Snyder look to optimize the first 3D printer for space.

Junior and teen aspiring engineers recently put their thinking hats on and came up with a few tools and items star voyagers on the International Space Station will find useful. Founding member of innovative education platform Future Engineers and partner NASA issued a challenge to young innovators to “think outside the box” in solving problems astronauts (star voyagers) will face while living and working in space during the decades ahead. The challenge to design a tool or item star voyagers on the International Space Station could use to make living in a microgravity environment easier. Aspiring inventors and young innovators answered the challenge with some stunning, innovative tools and items we’re sure astronauts living and working on the space station will find valuable. You can check out the aspiring engineers and their innovative space tools here.

Testing of the Made In Space 3D printer involved 400-plus parabolas of microgravity test flights. Credits: Credit: Made In Space
Testing of the Made In Space 3D printer involved 400-plus parabolas of microgravity test flights. Credit: Made In Space

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Check out all of the 3D Printing in Space Challenges issued to young innovators and aspiring engineers by NASA at Future Engineers.

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3-D Printer on International Space Station Hint of Space Technology on Horizon

The Mulitpurpose Precision Maintenance Tool, created by University of Alabama in Huntsville student Robert Hillan as part of the Future Engineers Space Tool Challenge, was printed on the International Space Station. It is designed to provide astronauts with a single tool that can help with a variety of tasks, including tightening nuts or bolts of different sizes and stripping wires. Credits: NASA
The Multipurpose Precision Tool seen here was printed on the International Space Station using emerging 3D printer technology by University of Alabama in Huntsville student Robert Hillan as part of the Future Engineers Space Tool Challenge. A single tool designed to help astronauts complete a variety of tasks, including tightening bolts and bolts.
Credits: NASA

Gadgets, ratchets, and things that go bump in the dark on demand 

Space news (space technology: Future Engineers Space Tool Challenge; The Multipurpose Precision Maintenance Tool) – The International Space Station, June 15, 2014 – 

Deanne Bell, founder and director of the Future Engineers challenges
Deanne Bell, founder and director of Future Engineers challenges young innovators of America to build a future in space. Credit: Fedscoop.com.

Travelers adventuring in distant, unknown lands can’t carry a tool and replacement for every job along the way. They need a multipurpose tool designed to do a number of important tasks, ready to go to work at a moments notice. For astronauts traveling, living and working in space, University of Alabama in Huntsville sophomore engineering student Robert Hillan has designed The Multipurpose Precision Maintenance Tool as part of the Future Engineers Space Tool Challenge. A single tool capable of helping astronauts complete a number of jobs, including tightening and loosening bolts and nuts of various sizes, and stripping wires. The best part’s the Multipurpose Precision Maintenance Tool recently debuted on the International Space Station. 

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NASA, the American Society for Mechanical Engineers Foundation and Star Trek invite young innovators of America to design hardware astronauts in space could use to grow, harvest, prepare, eat or dispose of food products as part of the latest Future Engineers 3d-Printing Challenge. Credit: Future Engineers/NASA/Star Trek

“Our challenges invite students to invent objects for astronauts, which can be both inspiring and incredibly tough,” said Deanne Bell, founder and director of the Future Engineers challenges. “Students must have the creativity to innovate for the unique environment of space, but also the practical, hands-on knowledge to make something functional and useful. It’s a delicate balance, but this combination of creativity, analytical skills, and fluency in current technology is at the heart of engineering education.” 

Robert Hillan, a sophomore engineering student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, watches a 3-D printer on the International Space Station complete his winning design for the Future Engineers Space Tool Challenge. Part of his prize for winning the competition was going behind the scenes to watch the printing process from NASA's Payload Operations Integration Center -- mission control for space station science located at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. Credits: NASA
Young innovators dream of standing in NASA’s Payload Operations Integration Center, mission control for the International Space Station. Robert Hillan, a sophomore engineering student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, smiles as the 3-D printer on the International Space Station completes his winning design for the Future Engineers Space Tool Challenge. Just part of his winning prize for being one of the best young innovators in America.
Credits: NASA

As part of his prize after winning the Future Engineers Space Tool Challenge in January of 2015, Robert Hillan watched from the Payload Operations Integration Center of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama as his tool came off the 3-D printer on the International Space Station. Robert smiled as NASA astronaut Jeff Williams showed the completed tool coming off the Additive Manufacturing Facility on board. 

The International Space Station’s 3-D printer has manufactured the first 3-D printed object in space, paving the way to future long-term space expeditions. The object, a printhead faceplate, is engraved with names of the organizations that collaborated on this space station technology demonstration: NASA and Made In Space, Inc., the space manufacturing company that worked with NASA to design, build and test the 3-D printer. This image of the printer, with the Microgravity Science Glovebox Engineering Unit in the background, was taken in April 2014 during flight certification and acceptance testing at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, prior to its launch to the station aboard a SpaceX commercial resupply mission. The first objects built in space will be returned to Earth in 2015 for detailed analysis and comparison to the identical ground control samples made on the flight printer prior to launch. The goal of this analysis is to verify that the 3-D printing process works the same in microgravity as it does on Earth. The printer works by extruding heated plastic, which then builds layer upon layer to create three-dimensional objects. Testing this on the station is the first step toward creating a working "machine shop" in space. This capability may decrease cost and risk on the station, which will be critical when space explorers venture far from Earth and will create an on-demand supply chain for needed tools and parts. Long-term missions would benefit greatly from onboard manufacturing capabilities. Data and experience gathered in this demonstration will improve future 3-D manufacturing technology and equipment for the space program, allowing a greater degree of autonomy and flexibility for astronauts. Image Credit: NASA/Emmett Given
The International Space Station’s 3-D printer has manufactured 3-D printed object in space, paving the road to a promising, long-term future in space for mankind. The object seen here is a printhead faceplate engraved with names of the organizations that collaborated on this space station technology demonstration: NASA and Made In Space, Inc., the space manufacturing company that worked with NASA to design, build and test the 3-D printer.
Image Credit: NASA/Emmett Given

Watch this video showing the Multipurpose Precision Maintenance Tool aboard the International Space Station here.

“I am extremely grateful that I was given the opportunity to design something for fabrication on the space station,” Hillan said. “I have always had a passion for space exploration, and space travel in general. I designed the tool to adapt to different situations, and as a result, I hope to see variants of the tool being used in the future, hopefully when it can be created using stronger materials.”  

Watch a time lapse video of the printing of the Multipurpose Precision Maintenance Tool here.

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Attired in the training versions of his Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit, NASA astronaut Tim Kopra trains in the waters of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Credits: NASA

Robert also got to spend a few minutes chatting with astronauts living and working on the International Space Station. NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, stationed aboard at the time commented on Hillan’s tool, “When you have a problem, it will drive specific requirements and solutions. 3-D printing allows you to do a quick design to meet those requirements. That’s the beauty of this tool and this technology. You can produce something you hadn’t anticipated and do it on short notice.” 

Watch a video of his conversation with astronauts on the International Space Station here.

“You have a great future ahead of you.” 

What does our young, intrepid inventor plan in the future?  

What’s next for our young inventor?

“When I won the competition, I started seeing problems I face as new opportunities to create and learn,” Hillan said. “Since then I have tried to seize every opportunity that presents itself. I love finding solutions to problems, and I want to apply that mentality as I pursue my engineering degree and someday launch my own company.” 

We see red horizons ahead for this young man. A steady light that goes bravely forward into the future. We expect to hear about him doing big things in the future. No matter the path he chooses. 

You can learn more about Future Engineers and all their past and future challenges here

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