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Astronauts rely on well stocked toolkit

Posted July 21, 2013

British astronaut Tim Peake recently shared photos of a toolbox aboard the International Space Station. Tools like these are an important part of life aboard station. The astronauts, mostly test pilots and scientists by trade, must also be electricians, plumbers and mechanics. While they have access to guidance from experts on the ground, there is no Home Depot or Lowe's home improvement stores in low Earth orbit, so being prepared is critical.

The inventory shared by Peake includes a selection of vice-grips and wrenches in many sizes (adjustable, combination, miniature, low profile and open-ended), pliers (locking and snap-ring), sockets
(with a variety of handles, extenders and adapters), torque wrenches, tweezers, screwdrivers and "limited area tools." While they may look like they were borrowed from a medical kit, long forceps and hemostats can serve as an extra set of hands during repairs.

The tools are stowed in long drawers labeled in English and Russian. Each drawer is foam-lined with precisely cut spaces holding each tool tightly.

My favorite part of the kit is the drawer filled with tools for those repair jobs that just aren't going according to plan. Any do-it-yourselfer knows the value of a good hacksaw, long prybar, heavy-duty shears, chisels and ball peen hammer (for percussive maintenance).

Working with tools in space is very different from working on the ground, particularly when grip is lost on a tool. Some tools have straps added to keep them tethered to the user. Velcro is also useful in keeping objects from wandering off. Bulkhead surfaces (there are no walls, ceilings or floors in zero gravity) have Velcro strips to secure tools while working and the shorts worn by astronauts also have Velcro strips sewn above the knees to keep things handy and not floating off.

Tools used outside the station during Extra Vehicular Activities (EVA) look very different from the tools in the kit described by Peake. They are larger, have more wrist and other straps to keep them from wandering off and have more complex locking mechanisms for removable sockets and bits.

"It isn’t possible for astronauts to use normal tools from the hardware store, because working in space means doing so in a unique environment," said Jill McGuire, crew aids and tools manager for the Hubble Space Telescope Program at Goddard.


Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.

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