A few years ago, a NASA 3D printing project made history when a team of engineers successfully created 3D printing projects onboard the International Space Station. Constructing useful 3D prints in space was a tremendous advancement in space exploration. Since then, NASA has been working to continually develop new 3D printing and manufacturing technologies that will revolutionize space travel.

Made in Space

Made in Space is a start-up based in California. The company partnered with NASA to build the 3D printer that is currently onboard the ISS. They specialize manufacturing in zero-gravity environments. A lack of gravity is one of the primary challenges engineers had to overcome when figuring out how to print 3D objects in space.

The company developed a printer that was able to filter toxic gases and nanoparticles, both of which would have otherwise made 3D printing impossible. The printer is practically controlled entirely by remote control. If a part is needed aboard the ISS, a manufacturer can print the object from a control room on Earth.

A functioning printer is just the beginning. The company’s main goal is to be able to manufacture in space. Not just print, but manufacture. The company hopes to develop a robotic system that is capable of doing so, the implications of which are tremendous. Being able to manufacture while in space could reduce the cost of repairs, and save astronaut lives in case of emergency.

The company’s Lead Engineer, Mike Snyder, said, “We really want to see these things become the building blocks for the future of exploration. They really can lead to sustainability in space, and actually make these missions that cost a lot of money be reduced just because you don’t have to launch as much mass.”

Manufacturing in space would also allow mankind to push deeper into space than they have before. Humans would be able to colonize in parts of space previously thought impossible. This is realistic because they would not have to travel with pre-constructed materials.

This is the ultimate goal of the company, according to cofound and CTO Jason Dunn. He said, “If we can grow industry in space, make things there and sell them on Earth or sell them one day on Mars on the Moon – what we start to do is build an economy that depends on activity going to and from space.”

The Importance of NASA 3D Printing

3D Print project manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Nike Werkheiser, said, “For the space station even, it will decrease risk, decrease cost and increase efficiency. But for longer-term missions, for space exploration, this is absolutely critical technology.”

NASA studies have concluded that nearly a third of the parts onboard the ISS could be replaced with a 3D printer. The printers could also be used to build CubeSats, which are tiny satellites that typically launch from Earth.

Now that scientists have proven that useful 3D prints are possible in space, they can further develop 3D printing projects. One of the useful 3D prints NASA has in mind is a printer for food. NASA recently awarded a researcher $125,000 to build a prototype of a printer that would do just that.

3D printing would also allow scientists to revolutionize their designs. Sleek designs with were once only dreamt about are a realistic possibility. Because it reduces manufacturing time and costs, the design possibilities are endless for a NASA 3D printing project. Items can be made safer and more durable than they have ever before been built, for a fraction of the cost.

A 3D printer allows for designs drawn up on a computer to become a reality. Many technical challenges are overcome when working with a 3D printer, which can help dramatically improve the materials that are used by astronauts on the forefront of space exploration.

Building a Rocket Engine Igniter

Although many of NASA’s notable 3D printing achievements have occurred in space, there was recently a breakthrough back home on Earth. NASA engineers printed a rocket engine igniter that was constructed of two different alloys. The process is a significant breakthrough, as it is considerably more difficult to print a rocket engine with two different types of metals.

A rocket engine igniter is responsible for initiating the start sequence for the engine. Typically, the manufacturing process for a rocket engine igniter is very difficult. In the past, it was completed by a process called brazing. Brazing involves combining two different types of metals by melting them together with a filler metal in-between.

The brazing process must be done by hand, which means it is costly and takes a long time to complete.

The fact that engineers were able to skip the manual brazing process and make a useful 3D print of a rocket engine igniter is astounding. Marshall Engineering Directorate Preston Jones said, “It is a technological achievement to 3D print and test rocket components made with two different alloys. This process could reduce future rocket engine costs by up to a third and manufacturing time by 50 percent.”

The advanced manufacturing chief on the project, Majid Babai, said, “Eliminating the brazing process and having bi-metallic parts built in a single machine not only decreases cost and manufacturing time, but it also decreases the risk by increasing reliability.”

He continued, “By diffusing the two materials together through this process, a bond is generated internally with the two materials and any hard transition is eliminated that could cause the component to crack under the enormous forces and temperature gradient of space travel.”

Imagine a scenario where a space shuttle is equipped with the capabilities to build its own rocket engine igniter. Space shuttles could push deeper into space than they have ever previously gone, as long as their onboard fuel reserves were adequate. It’s much easier for a shuttle to carry excess fuel than to carry an entire excess rocket engine igniter.

Shuttles could now carry additional fuel reserves instead of excess parts. Any excess parts that are needed could simply be printed on the space shuttle. 3D printing will revolutionize the way astronauts travel in space.

Now that engineers have successfully printed a dual-alloy rocket engine ignitor on Earth, one of their next logical 3D printing projects would be to see if its possible to do so from space. If so, astronauts could soon be on their way to Mars.

Results of 3D Printing

By successfully printing useful 3D prints, NASA is at the tip of the iceberg in terms of space manufacturing. The opportunities are truly endless. NASA will be able to push space exploration further than they ever have in the past, without jeopardizing the health and safety of their astronauts.

Costs will also be significantly reduced, which can help maximize NASA’s budget. Although 3D printing and manufacturing are very expensive, it pales in comparison to the cost of having to wait to replace a part.

In that scenario, the crew that is in space must wait for a shuttle to launch into space to deliver them the replacement part successfully. This process could take weeks or months, if not years. But with useful 3D prints, engineers on the ground could deliver a part to astronauts in a matter of hours.

NASA’s Director of Advanced Exploration Systems Division, Jason Crusan, said, “Additive manufacturing with 3D printers will allow space crews to be less reliant on supply missions from Earth and lead to sustainable, self-reliant exploration missions where resupply is difficult and costly.”

This efficiency cannot be overlooked as NASA pushes onward exploring space.