The great promise of the space age has always been that it drives innovation. So, when it was first suggested that Nasa retire its ageing Space Shuttle fleet, advocates of the programme – it was retired in 2011 – cited the many advances the low-earth orbiter had brought.
In truth, the Space Shuttle’s greatest legacies were somewhat prosaic. It was the pack horse that carried most of the International Space Station into orbit and it promoted a “can do” culture of elaborate solutions to the problems that space travel tends to kick up.
That part of the shuttle’s legacy was on show this week when Nasa mission control emailed a wrench to the space station, which astronauts printed out on their recently installed 3D printer. The printer will make it easier to carry out routine maintenance on the permanent space lab and brings new meaning to that often used expression of “putting a spanner in the works”.