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'Tea, Earl Grey, Hot': Space and the Promise of Additive Manufacturing

Moon bases have been the dream of space agencies, private companies and space advocates alike, for decades. Could additive manufacturing technologies turn these dreams into a reality? Image Credit: NASA

Moon bases have been the dream of space agencies, private companies, and space advocates alike for decades. Could additive manufacturing technologies turn these dreams into a reality? Image Credit: NASA

It has been an emblematic technology of the “Star Trek” television series for decades: a device that could manipulate matter and energy in such a way that it could create almost every object imaginable, from Captain Picard’s favorite beverage, to various machine parts of the Enterprise. If you’re inclined to view this kind of imaginary technology as being nothing more than an outlandish fantasy, well think again. The advent of additive manufacturing in recent years promises to bring this science fiction vision closer to reality, while revolutionising the entire manufacturing industry along the way.

Developed during the mid-1980s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, additive manufacturing, also known as 3-D printing, is a term comprising the set of technologies by which solid 3-dimensional materials can be constructed from a digital computer model. Contrary to the conventional subtractive manufacturing methods that are used today, where objects are fabricated through the subtraction of undesired parts from different types of raw materials in order to produce the desired finished product, additive manufacturing creates objects through the successive layering of raw materials that are laid down on top of each other. The advantages of this could greatly affect economies of scale. By using only the material needed for the creation of an object, 3-D printing produces almost none of the waste byproducts of traditional manufacturing processes. In addition, this technology can combine different raw materials together in ways that aren’t possible in traditional manufacturing, resulting in lighter and cheaper objects whose properties like strength and temperature resistance can be highly customised according to their intended use. And since 3-D printing is essentially the creation of objects from Computer-Aided Design digital files, it can greatly reduce construction and shipping costs by eliminating the need for the expensive and time-consuming production and assembly lines of traditional manufacturing.

Goddard technologists Ted Swanson and Matthew Showalter hold a 3D-printed battery-mounting plate developed specifically for a sounding-rocket mission. The component is the first additive-manufactured device Goddard has flown in space. Image Credit/Caption: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Goddard technologists Ted Swanson and Matthew Showalter hold a 3-D printed battery-mounting plate developed specifically for a sounding-rocket mission. The component is the first additive-manufactured device Goddard has flown in space. Image Credit/Caption: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

3-D printing is already being utilised today, within the automotive, jewelry, food, and electronics industries, among others. Yet one of the biggest beneficiaries of this technology could be the aerospace sector, with many corporations like General Electric and EADS starting to take notice of the potential of this revolutionising technology. But one of the leading backers in 3-D manufacturing is NASA, with the space agency being part of America Makes, a National Manufacturing Initiative which aims to accelerate the development and integration of additive manufacturing technologies in the entire U.S. manufacturing industry. To that end, the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate is currently running several research programs in cooperation with private space companies, examining the benefits and potential applications of 3D printing technologies that could revolutionise the space industry. The first promising results of NASA’s efforts came last year during a series of various hot-tests of 3-D printed rocket engine injectors at the space agency’s facilities.

Injectors comprise one of the most critical parts of rocket propulsion systems, mixing together the propellants (oxidizer and fuel) that provide the rocket’s necessary thrust. In addition to having a complex design, their construction (as is the case with every other rocket engine parts) is an expensive and time-consuming process which drives up the overall costs of rocket manufacturing. “Rocket engine components are complex machined pieces that require significant labor and time to produce,” says Tyler Hickman, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. “The injector is one of the most expensive components of an engine.” A set of rocket engine injectors built by Aerojet Rocketdyne through additive manufacturing were put through a series of hot-fire tests at the Glenn Research Center in July 2013, successfully demonstrating that they could operate as well as similar, more expensive systems built with traditional manufacturing techniques.

In addition, the 3-D printed components required less than four months to be completed, compared to the almost one year needed for their conventional counterparts, while also being approximately 70 percent cheaper. “Hot-fire-testing the injector as part of a rocket engine, is a significant accomplishment in maturing additive manufacturing for use in rocket engines,” says Carol Tolbert, manager of the Manufacturing Innovation project for the Office of the Chief Technologist at NASA’ Glenn Research Center. “These successful tests let us know that we are ready to move on to demonstrate the feasibility of developing full-size, additively manufactured parts.” In these times of tightly constrained budgets, additive manufacturing could help NASA lower the production costs of space hardware in a way that was previously unimaginable, leading to more affordable space exploration programs for the agency. “NASA recognizes that on Earth and potentially in space, additive manufacturing can be game-changing for new mission opportunities, significantly reducing production time and cost by ‘printing’ tools, engine parts or even entire spacecraft,” says Dr. Michael Gazarik, Associate Administrator of the Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington, DC. “3-D manufacturing offers opportunities to optimize the fit, form and delivery systems of materials that will enable our space missions, while directly benefiting American businesses here on Earth.”

A subscale RS-25 engine injector manufactured with 3D printing technologies, during a series of hot-fire tests st NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. Image Credit: NASA/MSFC

A subscale RS-25 engine injector manufactured with 3-D printing technologies, during a series of hot-fire tests st NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Image Credit: NASA/MSFC

One of the space agency’s programs that could also benefit from the application of additive manufacturing processes is the Space Launch System, or SLS, which is NASA’s next generation heavy-lift vehicle for transporting astronauts to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit. This became more evident during a round of hot-fire tests of a 3-D printed rocket injector at the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., in August of last year. Although the size of the injector tested was relatively small in size, its design was similar to the roughly 10.5-inch diameter main injector used by the RS-25 engine, which will power the SLS’s core stage. The results showed that the injector was capable of producing a record 20,000 pounds of thrust, for a 3D printed component. “Early data from the test conducted at pressures up to 1,400 pounds per square inch absolute and at almost 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit — typical of the environments experienced by rocket engines — indicates the injector worked flawlessly,” stated NASA following the successful completion of the test. “During the hot-fire test, liquid oxygen and gaseous hydrogen flowed through the injector into a combustion chamber producing 10 times more thrust than any injector ever fabricated using a process known as additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing.”

More importantly, the technologies that were used for its construction were able to make it in two parts, while earlier injectors fabricated with traditional machining processes were comprised by no less than 115 parts. This reduction in the parts needed for the successful operation of rocket engine components, could also drive down the SLS’s construction costs dramatically, while allowing for more efficient and flexible designs of its propulsion system. “This successful test of a 3D-printed rocket injector, brings NASA significantly closer to proving this innovative technology can be used to reduce the cost of flight hardware,” says Chris Singer, Director of Marshall Space Flight Center’s Engineering Directorate. In addition to costing more than half the price of traditionally fabricated injectors, the construction time for the 3-D printed components was similarly reduced from months to weeks. “The additive manufacturing process has the potential to reduce the time and cost associated with making complex parts by an order of magnitude,” adds Singer.

A customised wrench used for the assembly and dissasembly of rocket engines, created with 3D printing at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. Photo Credit: AmericaSpace

A customised wrench used for the assembly and disassembly of rocket engines, created with 3-D printing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Photo Credit: AmericaSpace

Marshall Space Flight Center’s 3-D printing needs have advanced the additive manufacturing industry in many ways, including ever larger printing capabilities. Just a few years ago, the maximum diameter of any additive manufactured part was 24 inches. Marshall’s needs pushed that to 38 inches. But even that isn’t big enough; according to Nick Case, a Marshall propulsion engineer, to print an F-1 injector, a “printer” of at least 44 inches is needed. According to Mr. Case, Marshall has also used 3-D printing to build custom tools it needs, such as a special wrench needed for disassembling a part from an existing rocket engine currently undergoing testing. 

The research conducted by NASA could also prove valuable for the development of rocket engine designs by private space companies as well, since the space agency has made the hot-fire test results available to every U.S. company, through Marshall’s Materials and Processes Information System database. “This entire effort helped us learn what it takes to build larger 3-D parts – from design, to manufacturing, to testing,” says Greg Barnett, an engineer for the project at Marshall Space Flight Center’s Propulsion Systems Department. “This technology can be applied to any of SLS’s engines, or to rocket components being built by private industry.”

Rocket engine designs isn’t NASA’s only area of study when it comes to 3-D printing applications in space. The space agency awarded a $125,000 contract last year to Systems and Materials Research Corporation, based in Austin, Texas, to study the feasibility of constructing a 3-D printer to be used as food synthesizer for use in deep-space missions. NASA hopes that this technology could potentially allow astronauts to “print” their own food during long-duration missions, thus helping to reduce the overall amount of cargo launched from Earth. “As NASA ventures farther into space, whether redirecting an asteroid or sending astronauts to Mars, the agency will need to make improvements in life support systems, including how to feed the crew during those long deep space missions,” states the space agency. “NASA’s Advanced Food Technology program is interested in developing methods that will provide food to meet safety, acceptability, variety, and nutritional stability requirements for long exploration missions, while using the least amount of spacecraft resources and crew time … Additive manufacturing offers opportunities to get the best fit, form and delivery systems of materials for deep space travel. This is why NASA is a leading partner in the President’s National Network for Manufacturing Innovation and the Advanced Manufacturing Initiative.”

Alison Lewis, Branding Advisor of the private space company Made In Space, during a microgravity test of the company's 3D printing system onboard a Zero-G Boeing 727 aircraft in 2011. Image Credit: Made In Space

Alison Lewis, Branding Advisor of the private space company Made In Space, during a microgravity test of the company’s 3D printing system onboard a Zero-G Boeing 727 aircraft in 2011. Image Credit: Made In Space

As fascinating as this ground-work is, 3-D printing is getting ready to go to the next level, by being launched to the final frontier later this year. Onboard the next commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station by Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, currently scheduled for launch in August 2014, will be the first 3-D printer to be tested in space. A partnership between NASA and Made In Space, a private space company that was founded in 2010, the 3D Printing In Zero-G Technology Demonstration experiment aims to become the first manufacturing ever conducted beyond our planet, through the 3-D printing of various test objects on the ISS. The company’s space-bound 3-D printer has already passed a series of critical microgravity tests in previous years, by showcasing that it could operate as planned during several parabolic flights on board a modified Boeing 727 airplane by the Zero G Corporation. If additive manufacturing on the ISS proves to be successful, it could greatly affect the way that spaceflight is conducted in the long run, forever changing the logistics of space exploration. “The future of space exploration will change forever when everything we need for space is built in space,” says Aaron Kemmer, CEO of Made In Space. “In this future, parts, habitats and structures are not launched and assembled, but instead 3D-printed, layer-by-layer in outer space with additive manufacturing.”

The prospect of in-space construction using only in-situ resources is something also been investigated by the European Space Agency. Collaborating with industry partners, ESA has conducted a series of studies on the feasibility of building entire bases on the Moon out of the lunar regolith through the use of additive manufacturing. “3D printing offers a potential means of facilitating lunar settlement with reduced logistics from Earth,” says Scott Hovland, Head of ESA’s Human Systems Section, in Paris, France. “The new possibilities this work opens up can then be considered by international space agencies, as part of the current development of a common exploration strategy.”

Additive manufacturing technologies hold the potential to entirely transform the way we build and operate things in our everyday lives here on Earth, as well as in space. “Just as nobody could have predicted the impact of the steam engine in 1750—or the printing press in 1450, or the transistor in 1950—it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing”, wrote The Economist in 2011. “But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches.” Space exploration, in particular, an endeavor that is consistently plagued with trimming budgets and constant fiscal uncertainties, could best be benefited by the advent of 3-D printing, which could allow for missions in the future that are now considered to be too risky or financially unaffordable. In the long run, 3-D printing may hold the key for the very construction and operation of deep space habitats on the Moon, Mars, and every other destination in the Solar System.

As Captain Jean-Luc Picard would say, “Make it so!”

YouTube Preview Image

Video Credit: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

 

The author would like to thank AmericaSpace’s Jim Hillhouse, for contributing material for the writing of this article.

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21 comments to ‘Tea, Earl Grey, Hot’: Space and the Promise of Additive Manufacturing

  • Joe

    Leonidas,

    An excellent article.

    A number of people (myself included) who are interested in lunar industrialization/settlement have always had a sort of “you can’t get there from here” problem.

    That is you know what kind of set up you want on the lunar surface and it is very practical once it is in existence.

    However, supporting logistics from Earth until self-sufficiency is achieved has always been problematic. The 3D printing process has great potential for alleviating that “bottle neck”.

    More attention to this kind of innovation is certainly deserved.

    Thanks.

    • Leonidas Papadopoulos

      Thank you Joe,

      Indeed, additive manufacturing holds the promise of achieving just that – the dramatic reduction of costs, so that logistics can make such missions affordable.

      Much will depend on the results of the 3D printing technology demonstration experiments that are scheduled to take place on the ISS later this year. I’m looking forward to it.

      Best regards.

      • Joe

        So am I.

        Note also that the time when a Lunar Base can become more self-sufficient is also greatly advantaged.

        Think of a reusable lunar lander. It will need maintenance, including the change out of what the military calls LRU’s (Line Replaceable Units). Things like, for instance, fuel injectors. Manufacturing them by the conventional subtractive method will be to labor intensive and time consuming for a nascent Moon Base, but with 3D printing it will become possible.

  • ken anthony

    Real makers are LMAO at those thinking 3D printing is the silver bullet.

    Non makers can understand 3D printing. What they don’t understand is it only changes things on the fringes. Give a blacksmith a hunk of metal (which s/he can pull from dirt) and they can make almost anything. Hand that off to a machinist and you don’t need to add almost.

    The problem is attitude, not technology.

    That’s not to say 3D printing isn’t great and shouldn’t be included. It should. But it makes people stupid. It has it’s place. That place does not replace some long existing methods of manufacturing that are still far superior.

    • Joe

      Would your attitude change if Elon Musk were to suddenly announce that SpaceX would be switching all its manufacturing to 3D printing?

      By the way, that is what is known as a rhetorical question.

      • ken anthony

        My attitude in that case would be that Musk jumped the shark.

        Since your question does not make the point you think it does, it’s not rhetorical. Instead it is a lame attempt to cut off debate. Didn’t work, did it?

        • Joe

          Yes in fact it did,

          I showed that it, in spite of your infatuation with SpaceX, your need to denigrate 3D printing is even stronger.

          Interesting.

          • ken anthony

            I have a practical understanding of 3D printing and it’s place in manufacturing. That is only denigration to those that believe 3D printing is real magic.

            What it shows is I am not delusional about Musk or 3D. Not being delusional is a good thing. Give it a shot Joe.

            • Joe

              You make a lot of claims about your expertise that your posts do not tend to support.

              As for all the juvenile insults, you may think they are effective but I doubt most others do.

              In any case I will not be dragged down to your level.

              Have a nice day.

    • Leonidas Papadopoulos

      The automotive industry has already “printed” a car prototype through additive manufacturing technology.

      Airbus also announced in 2012, that it is exploring the possibility of manufacturing an entire aircraft within the coming decades, using only 3D printing technology. Surely, for their engineers to be contemplating such a thing, they must feel that additive manufacturing has much more potential.

      • Joe

        I am an engineer (although according to Ken Anthony, perhaps that makes me among the “Non makers”) and I can tell you it has great potential.

        • Leonidas Papadopoulos

          I’m not an aerospace engineer Joe, but maybe, just maybe, 3D printing can lead to cost reductions that would enable all shorts of deep-space missions that are new considered prohibitively expensive.

          If people find that rapid and complete rocket re-usability is so affordable and within reach, then I don’t see why additive manufacturing in space should be seen as such a ‘pie in the sky’ idea.

          I’d love to see a 3D printing experiment similar to the one scheduled for the ISS, also conducted on the Moon in the near future.

          • Joe

            “If people find that rapid and complete rocket re-usability is so affordable and within reach, then I don’t see why additive manufacturing in space should be seen as such a ‘pie in the sky’ idea.”

            It is curious that someone who believes reusable boosters (that can be turned around in one day) will be available within the next year or two (apparently because they uncritically accept anything SpaceX puts out in a press release), suddenly start sounding like Luddites when another (and far more credible) subject is discussed.

            I particularly liked the line “But it (3D printing) makes people stupid”. The same thing was said when small calculators replaced slide rules.

            “I’d love to see a 3D printing experiment similar to the one scheduled for the ISS, also conducted on the Moon in the near future.”

            So would I, but unfortunately the Moon if off limits (to this country – at least for now), so for the time being we will have to settle for the ISS testing.

            • Leonidas Papadopoulos

              “It is curious that someone who believes reusable boosters (that can be turned around in one day) will be available within the next year or two (apparently because they uncritically accept anything SpaceX puts out in a press release), suddenly start sounding like Luddites when another (and far more credible) subject is discussed”.

              I really wish SpaceX all the best of luck, but when the company announced its plans for rapid and complete rocket re-usability, fans started arguing just how much everyone else who didn’t share the dream were supposedly ‘OldSpace dinosaurs’ and stuff, resistant to progress. It’s funny now, when it comes to discussing additive manufacturing in space, how the tables are turned.

              “So would I, but unfortunately the Moon if off limits (to this country – at least for now), so for the time being we will have to settle for the ISS testing.

              Ah, yes, the brilliance of ‘we’ve been there, done that’. Elon Musk thinks so as well.

        • ken anthony

          Joe, the majority of engineers I’ve worked with (in AZ mostly) are not makers. Machinists are an example of makers. Farmers are makers.

          Some engineers are makers. Most are not. Most engineers work as decision makers or input to decision makers. Hands on engineers are a minority. I’ve worked with many engineers over decades during my career. Even many of the hands on types were not makers (unless making trouble for production workers qualifies?)

          3d printing has more than just potential, it’s viable and useful now. But it’s not magic rainbow unicorns. It’s just one of many manufacturing techniques. In other words, it is just one tool in the box full of still wonderfully useful other tools.

          Tools and technology are not holding us back. Mindset is holding up back and it’s pitiful.

          • ken anthony

            Also Joe, I worked in the regional HQ of the FAA in WA. Five stories full of engineers and not a maker in the lot. Lot’s of nice people, but they didn’t actually make anything. They had field technicians for that.

          • Joe

            Are you a farmer or a machinist?

            Based on the fact that 3D printing could (sadly and I mean that seriously)reduce the requirement for machinist, I would guess the latter.

  • ken anthony

    I am not a farmer, machinist or engineer. Software engineer is a joke that most don’t seem to get.

    However, having worked with farmers, machinists and engineers for decades I have much respect for what the good ones do. I also have more than an academic understanding of what the poor ones do.

    Most people are insulated from what a civilization requires. I recommend Mike Rowe and dirty jobs as supplemental adult education for those that can’t actual spend a season or two working on a farm or ranch.

    This is what will allow martians to outpace us. Life will require they know.

    That you think we will need fewer machinists is ridiculous. I was the programmer doing what machinists don’t have the mind for. What machinist have are skills a 3D printer doesn’t change.

    As I said, and have to repeat because you obviously are not hearing me, 3D printing has it’s place in manufacturing but is not a replacement for much that already exists that will continue to be more productive even after improvements in 3D printing. Improvements which I look forward to.

    • Joe

      “Not being delusional is a good thing. Give it a shot Joe.”
      “This is what will allow martians to outpace us.”

      Tell you what, when the “martians” outpace us; come back and gloat.

      Until then it would be a good idea not to imply anybody else is delusional.

  • ken anthony

    Joe, I have been a bit too snarky and for that I do sincerely apologize.

    3D printing is a great thing. We both agree on that. But it’s not going to save our eternal souls. It’s just a tool.

    It bothers me that people hype a technology in a way that seems to indicate they haven’t given due consideration of alternatives. Especially those having the test of time on their side.

    I recently came across this G.B.Shaw quote [consider this a paraphrase from my swiss cheese memory]…

    Reasonable men adjust to their environment. Unreasonable men adjust the environment to themselves. Therefore, all progress is made by unreasonable men.

    So Joe, I invite you to make progress together with this unreasonable man.

    BTW, my experience over 55 years has been eclectic which makes it difficult for many having a more normal life to believe. When I was a 30 yo ATCS among 20 yos. it was even more apparent.

    • Joe

      Fair enough. Apology accepted.

      OK let’s bring this to a close. I have never said that 3D printing was going to save anybody’s “eternal soul”. It is however, a breakthrough in practical manufacturing that has considerable potential for the aerospace industry.

      Two examples:

      (1) The evaluators of the fuel injector talked about in Leonidas’s article estimate that using 3D printing could reduce the cost of building rocket engines by 70%. I believe, based on some 30 years in the business, that earth surface to earth orbit boosters will remain expendable for the foreseeable future. If that is true, then a 70% reduction in the cost of manufacturing those boosters will be a great advantage to anyone wanting to see an expansive space program.

      (2) If a lunar return is attempted by someone, the in space transport can become reusable quickly. Those vehicles (and other in space hardware) will require both maintenance and replacement. The only way likely to make that practical is to manufacture the required hardware using lunar materials. The problem has been that the labor hours required has always been too great to build up the hypothetical lunar base to the point where there would be enough personnel to supply the labor. The advent of 3D printing breaks that “bottleneck”.

      Those two things are not magic and will not save anyone’s “eternal soul”, but they can be the difference between being able to establish a growing and productive human presence in space over the next 50 years and that not happening.

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