NASA is now using 3D printing techniques to manufacture rockets in order to regain competitiveness versus the Russian space industry.

US betting on 3D printing to win the space race

The George C. Marshall Space Flight Centre (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama is currently using 3D printing in pursuit of an objective which sounds as if it came straight out of the pages of the Cold War annals: building 100%-US-made space rockets with superior performance to those being made by Russian manufacturers. Since the demise of the USSR, the United States has seriously neglected its own equipment production and has instead been buying a huge amount of space gear from the old enemy. In the early 1990s, the abundant, reliable and low-cost Russian rockets provided a highly attractive alternative to the expensive American variety. This cooperative trend continued unabated until the recent cooling of relations between the two countries.

3D printing should enable the US government to build space rockets faster and at a lower cost

In order to reduce dependence on Russian rockets – which are today used to take satellites that are vital for national security up into orbit – the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has recently made massive investments in the MSFC, which, back in the 1960s, was one of the  flagship US space industry bases. The major issue is how to become competitive again given that the US has been importing Russian rockets for over twenty years.  The main hopes of NASA’s revitalised rocket programme are resting on state-of-the-art digital technology combining computer modelling and additive layer manufacturing (ALM), popularly known as 3D printing. One of the project management team, Steve Cook, who was quizzed recently by the Popular Science website, underlined that this approach is likely to save both a great deal of time and considerable amounts of raw material.  

To take just one example, a gas generator injector, which would take fifteen months to build using traditional assembly methods, can now be built in just fifteen days, with a 70% reduction in the cost of manufacturing. Moreover, the process of superimposing layer upon layer of material to create a solid object without welds, joins or fasteners, which is characteristic of the ‘3D printing’ method, also considerably reduces the weight of the part, thus freeing up precious pounds of thrust that can then be used for payload. In the same vein, ‘printing’ out a  thrust chamber (the main part of the engine, which includes the combustion chamber and fuel nozzle), will cost an estimated 35% less than assembling it in the traditional way, while at the same time the additive manufacturing approach will save months of work.  In the longer term, most of the rocket components could be printed, resulting in a powerful, cost-effective, fast-built engine. A first demonstration model is expected to be available sometime in 2018.

By Guillaume Renouard