NASA’s 3D-printed rocket is almost ready

18 Dec 2015

NASA claims it is 75pc of the way there with its first-ever 3D-printed rocket engine after another batch of parts were tested this week.

It turns out you can pretty much 3D print anything nowadays. Prosthetic limbs? Check. Prosthetic turtle shells? Check. Food? Check. Guns? Check. Rockets? Well, pretty much now, yea. That’s because NASA’s latest project, to 3D print an entire space rocket, is almost complete.

This all makes sense, really. 3D printing, on the whole, is seen as a way to drastically reduce manufacturing costs. We’ve seen it already in a recent interview with ENABLE’s Stephen Dignam, whose homemade prosthetic arms and hands are creating incredibly affordable options for those unlucky enough to need one.

3D printing affects us all

For NASA, it’s no different, with costings for space projects running into eye-watering sums. Space X, for example, is pouring an awful lot of resources into developing rockets that can land back down on Earth, rather than crashing . This is because the engine is often the most expensive part of the spacecraft.

For three years now NASA has been working with various vendors to make 3D-printed parts, such as turbopumps and injectors, and test them individually. Now they have started testing them together, a huge step.

“We manufactured and then tested about 75pc of the parts needed to build a 3D printed rocket engine,” said Elizabeth Robertson, the project manager for the additively manufactured demonstrator engine at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

“By testing the turbopumps, injectors and valves together, we’ve shown that it would be possible to build a 3D printed engine for multiple purposes such as landers, in-space propulsion or rocket engine upper stages.”

What’s cool is some of the 3D-printed devices contain far less parts than conventionally-made alternatives.

The turbopump, for example, which NASA explains is “one of the more complex parts of the engine”, has 45pc fewer parts. The injector had over 200 fewer parts and it incorporated features that have never been used before because they are only possible with 3D printing.

“This new manufacturing process really opened the design space and allowed for part geometries that would be impossible with traditional machining or casting methods,” said David Eddleman, one Marshall’s propulsion designers.

“For the valve designs on this engine, we used more efficient structures in the piece parts that resulted in optimised performance.”

Space travel is about to get an awful lot more affordable, it seems.

Rocket image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic