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NASA is 3D Printing a Rocket that will Go to the Moon

Updated on December 18, 2019
Marla Keene profile image

Marla Keene is a tech writer with AX Control, Inc, an industrial automation supplier located in North Carolina.

Additive manufacturing may solve thermal expansion issues encountered in Challenger disaster.

Someday in the near future, NASA will launch a space mission with rockets that have been 3D printed instead of traditionally manufactured.

To be more specific, NASA’s collaboration with Aerojet RocketDyne, an American rocket and missile propulsion manufacturer, will develop a one-piece, lightweight thrust chamber assembly design that can be scaled for different mission uses from large launch vehicles capable of escaping Earth’s gravitational pull to smaller propulsion systems used as lunar landers.

The thrust chamber design includes the main combustion chamber of the rocket, along with the nozzle and injector, and is based upon plans put out to bid by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. By utilizing private manufacturers through collaborative measures, NASA is able to speed up development while reducing development costs.

Benefits of Additive Manufacturing

Anyone who saw the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 has likely watched every mission since then wondering if the rocket seals would hold. Since that time, NASA has constantly looked for ways to improve and reduce the number of complex joints within high-pressure combustion parts. By utilizing 3D printing methods, the thrust chamber can be made as a single unit with zero joints or welds. This significantly reduces failure or leak points. Additionally, the materials used for this process reduce weight by up to 40% as compared to current methods, another major benefit when trying to break out of Earth’s gravity. And since the chamber is manufactured from fewer materials, the risk from thermal stress due to thermal expansion mismatch is also minimized.

Turnaround time for additive manufacturing also tends to be faster than traditional manufacturing, especially in emergency situations where a traditional manufacturer might have to completely reset their manufacturing setup to source necessary parts. This means rocket parts can be made or replaced quickly and efficiently.

Not the first time 3D printing has been used

This is not the first time NASA has turned to 3D printing. In fact, they are such advocates of the technology, they hold a patent for one new kind of additive manufacturing. NASA has used 3D printing many times in the past. The astronauts aboard the ISS have a 3D printer on hand in case they need to make specific tools or parts they didn’t think to bring along. Sometimes an important wrench gets misplaced, and the ISS crew likes having the ability to make another when that happens. Yes, even astronauts forget where they’ve put something, at least on occasion.

NASA has also developed rocket thrusters and self-building spacecraft using additive manufacturing. They have over a dozen additive manufacturing projects currently in development. Someday, we may even live in NASA’s 3-D printed Mars habitats.

Not a new partnership

Aerojet Rocketdyne and NASA have worked together before. The company has collaborated with NASA on several projects, most notably developing engines for the moon-bound Orion spacecraft scheduled for 2024, as well as developing surface transport for astronauts for the same mission. The goal of this program, named Artemis, is to create a sustained and sustainable human presence on the moon. It will land in and explore the Moon’s never-before surveyed south pole, first using robotic landers and then human-crewed landing missions.

The hope is the Moon will act as a sort of proving ground--as well as a jumping-off point--for missions to Mars and beyond. The Artemis program, which will include time on the Moon’s surface as well as months spent within the Gateway craft orbiting the Moon, will give NASA a chance to study the challenges to the human body that may need to be surmounted before a longer mission, as well as how astronauts deal with issues like limited resources, trash disposal, and proper tool and machinery use and maintenance over a longer time period.

Aerojet Rocketdyne is headquartered in El Segundo, California. However, NASA’s lightweight thruster assembly chambers will be produced in a new 136,000 square foot facility recently opened this year in Huntsville, Alabama, a few miles away from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

About the author: Marla Keene is a staff writer with AX Control Inc., suppliers of industrial automation parts including Reliance Electric, General Electric, Fuji Electric, Horner, Parker, and Eurotherm products.

The J-2X is another engine collaboration between NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne.
The J-2X is another engine collaboration between NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne. | Source

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