Working with limited outer ‘space’

Originally published in the 2016 edition of Innovation magazine

By Amy Raley

If you work at the International Space Station and you suddenly realize your toolbox doesn’t have the ratchet wrench you need, what do you do? You break out the 3-D printer and print one.

Dustin Kost, a 2015 mechanical engineering technology graduate from Purdue Polytechnic New Albany, recounted how astronauts printed just such a wrench on the space station recently. Talking by phone from his job at Techshot, a high-tech Greenville, Indiana, company serving the aerospace, defense and medical industries, Kost says he’s part of a team tasked with evaluating common packing materials used for space-station payloads to determine if they can be recycled into “feedstock” for a space-based 3-D printer. “We’re early in the process,” Kost says. “We’re evaluating plastics materials — breaking them down and putting them through
an extruder.”

The goal is to give standard packing materials a second, recycled life as tools or other needed items that can be 3-D printed in space. Items could include objects that can’t be carried into space.

Kost also is on a team that’s perfecting the design of an enhanced stretcher that will protect wounded soldiers from further suffering caused by the bumps and vibrations of the vehicles transporting them. The stretcher’s shock-absorbing suspension system is in its design phase, so commercialization isn’t anticipated for a number of years.

Another 2015 New Albany MET graduate at Techshot, Krystal Milliner, is designing and building equipment for the International Space Station as well. Though she is participating in a number of projects, she’s currently spending most of her time refining the design of modules that will accommodate living fruit flies to be studied in space.

Her biggest challenge, Milliner says, is “the size limitations. You’ve got to get a lot of components in a small space.” The fruit flies, which are scheduled to go to the space station in July 2017, will go into wedge-shaped modules on carousels inside a payload box that is about the size of a standard kitchen microwave oven.

Milliner and Kost say their courses and professors at Purdue Polytechnic New Albany made sure that they’re both up to the challenges of their jobs. “Our teachers had real-world experience in careers relevant to our curriculum. Their expertise, combined with great hands-on labs, helped give us the tools we needed to succeed in the workplace,” Milliner says. “We were prepared to be productive at Techshot right away.”