Astronauts use Boeing-developed tool to prep ISS for new arrays

An engineer quickly innovates a 3D-printed device to assist spacewalkers.

February 09, 2021 in Space

This view from a helmet-mounted camera shows astronaut Mike Hopkins using the 3D-printed tool to release a handling fixture on one of the solar array canisters on the International Space Station.

NASA TV image

Astronauts on the International Space Station, or ISS, always work hard during their hours-long spacewalks, but the task of removing a fixture from the ISS solar array canisters was more difficult than expected when it was first tried last year. 

Leaving the fixtures in place was not an option: Six of them had to be removed so that six new, Boeing-designed solar arrays could be attached to the ISS beginning later this year.

Responding to NASA’s need, Richard Swaim, associate ISS chief engineer for Boeing, quickly designed a wedge-shaped tool about the length of a finger that spacewalkers could slip under the fixtures to pop them off smoothly.

The tool was used for the first time on Feb. 1, as astronaut Mike Hopkins removed two fixtures from their canisters during his and astronaut Victor Glover’s second spacewalk of the year.

This was not the first attempt to remove these fixtures on orbit. Another team of spacewalkers last year used pliers to try to remove the first fixture.

Hearing about that initial attempt, Swaim set out to try a different approach. He designed the tool on his computer and 3D-printed the first two prototypes to evaluate on a full-scale model of the fixture and its base. The results promised a smooth use.

“These tools were designed to be as simple as possible to use — they were precisely dimensioned to be easy to insert with a gloved hand, and release a mechanism in the fixture,” Swaim said.

The success was another example of the ISS’ role in demonstrating how to develop and implement new tools for deep space missions. Additive manufacturing could be a useful method to print specialized tools on a mission to a destination that is 100 million miles away. 

The wedge-shaped tool is about the size of a finger and worked precisely to detach the handling fixtures to set the stage for new arrays in the spring.

Boeing photo