Astronauts to print South Bay high school student's invention in space

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A high school student is about to have a piece of his hard work put into use on the International Space Station, thanks to a contest that asked young engineers to reach for the stars. (KGO-TV)

A high school student is about to have a piece of his hard work put into use on the International Space Station, thanks to a contest that asked young engineers to reach for the stars.

Ansel Austin just learned he won a design competition for his "trillium tool," a triangular multipurpose wrench designed to be used in space. As part of the grand prize, his tool will be 3D printed aboard the International Space Station.

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"Well, I'm certainly hoping that (the astronauts) use it," he said. "I think it's functional enough that they could."

The nationwide contest run by Future Engineers asked teens to make one tool that does two things.

"And the idea here is, really, how do you reduce volume and mass?"' said Future Engineers founder and CEO Deanne Bell. "In space, everything is about saving every gram that you can, saving every little space that you can."

Ansel's tool combines a bi-directional ratchet at the center of the triangle with a set of metric wrenches that are embedded in the three "petals" that extend out from it. He started designing by figuring out the shape.

"I basically just picked something up and observed how my fingers naturally fell onto that object," he said.

The trillium tool has indentations on its sides for four fingers and a thumb. Ansel said he knew he'd found success when most people who picked it up naturally used the notches he provided.

Ansel's mom told us he spent days -- even entire weekends -- making one iteration of the tool after another. Even after he won the contest, he was still making changes to make sure the inner workings of the ratchet were smooth and durable.

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"It's beauty," Bell said. "It's engineering and art altogether, and we're so proud of him."

Bell said it's the first time there have been two contest winners. Ansel tied for first place with Austin Suitor of Scottsdale, Arizona, who designed a carabiner made to hold interchangeable tool bits. Ansel pointed out the two tools could work together, since the trillium tool can take a variety of bits, including ones astronauts can 3D print later according to their needs.

The enthusiasm Ansel and his classmates have shown for the contest is exactly why Valley Christian's been entering it since Made in Space put the first 3D printer into orbit in 2014.

"What kid would not be excited about the opportunity of doing something on board the International Space Station?" said Danny Kim, Valley Christian's vice president in charge of applied math, science and engineering. "It inspires them to not only just get into space, but other aspects of STEM and science and technology."

Ansel's been trying to win the contest for years -- but along the way, he's won a few other things.

"I've won three 3D printers for the school so far. And currently, a trip to Washington as well," he said.

He said he's had several requests from people looking to have their own trillium tool here on earth -- including NASA's chief scientist, who recently spoke at a school assembly.

"He said, 'Could I get one for my garage? Actually, I could use this now,'" Kim said.

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