Ever meet a welder who’s got to one-up everything? You say, “I’m into MIG welding.” They say, “Oh MIG welding’s nothing, I MIG weld underwater. Blind-folded. Naked.” No matter what you say, they’ve always got something better.
That’s exactly why we’d love to weld in space. Try one-uping that, Mr. Naked-MIG-Welder. And with the privatization of space travel and the possibility of families spending their next vacation orbiting the earth, you can bet space welding is going to become a needed skill.
So, can it be done? It has been done. By our friends back in Mother Russia during the late 1960’s. Two cosmonauts (using the beautiful hardware featured below) performed different welds using electron beams, a low-pressure plasma arc and a consumable electrode.
Just imagine hanging out on the edge of the world, trying to weld a 200-pound chunk of stainless steel. You can swing it around weightlessly with ease but If you accidentally let it go, it’s never coming back. Every bead you lay is an expert example of precision. If not, your weld could accidentally punch through the spacecraft leaving the rest of your crew in a world of hurt (as the first Russian space welders almost found out).
Besides the normal space hazards of freak air leaks, becoming stranded, or having an alien burst out of your chest, space welders also have to worry about cold welding. Cold welding is a phenomenon that happens when two clean, flat surfaces of metal touch one another in a vacuum (a.k.a. space). Essentially, the molecules become confused and forget which metal piece they belong to, causing the pieces to become welded without any other outside force. Of course, this seems like an easy answer to welding in space. Just stick the metal together and BAM! Home in time for dinner without ever turning a welding machine on. The problem is that cold welding’s inconsistent. You’ll find yourself trying to rub two pieces together with no luck sometimes. Other times you’ll accidentally tap two pieces together and they’re stuck forever.
Unlike the first Russian space welders, today we’ve got the luxury of much more advanced equipment. For instance, flipping a protective visor up and down inside your spacesuit must have been a complete nightmare. Today we’ve got auto-darkening helmets to solve that problem for us. It’s just a small step towards your next welding job on the rings of Saturn.
Space is just one of the insane places welders have gone. Check out our in-depth article on underwater welding here and discover more incredible places welders go every day.