Everything you need to know about 3D printing rockets

As you may have heard, about a week ago Marshall Space Flight successfully tested a rocket injector that was 3D Printed. Well actually the first tests were earlier than that, but everyone took notice when the video posted below (and others taken at the same time) were posted.

What you might not know is why this is just now a “breakthrough” when 3D printing in metal isn’t new. Shapeways has been printing metal pieces since 2009, and the technology was first patented in the 80s. The biggest difference is that traditionally 3D printing in metal has been done using Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) whereas this injector was printed in Inconel using Selective Laser Melting (SLM). If the difference isn’t clear… in SLS the laser fuses the metal powder together through a localized reaction, whereas SLM essentially melts (or welds) all of the metal in the part. There is a little bit of research going into the difference in properties etc. between the two. The two processes are being improved daily, but everything I have read or seen shows SLM to be stronger (though only marginally in most materials). If your curious, Marshall uses the M2 Cusing by Concept Laser. So the technology specific to printing this part is very new. Marshall just started testing out the technology a year ago.

Enter SpaceX. Yesterday SpaceX posted the video below showing off there cool Iron Man inspired 3D model viewing technology. At the end of the video they print a part to scale in inconel using SLS (specifically using this printer).  So SpaceX posts a video where they 3D print an inconel engine part and everyone is too distracted by the shiny sci-fi-esque toy  to really grasp that, while the call the part a “prototype”, it is a functional prototype and they could (& probably will) make the end product the exact same way. The only thing left to be seen (from my perspective) is if the SLS printed parts will hold up just as well as the SLM parts.

Oh, and did I mention that one of the SLM printed rocket injectors is currently at Stennis and I have been given the opportunity to handle it and give feedback? If you know me, you know how much I love both 3D printing and rockets, so of course I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted to tweet/post pictures at the time but I was told no :/   I guess I’ll settle for writing this post, even though I have to leave out some of my coolest thoughts/opinions on the matter 😉

NASA Asks Universities For Early Stage Innovation Tech Proposals

April 02, 2013

David E. Steitz

Headquarters, Washington



RELEASE: 13-095


WASHINGTON — NASA is seeking innovative, early-stage space technology proposals from accredited U.S. universities that will enable NASA’s future missions and America’s leadership in space.

Proposals are sought for science instruments, cryogenic propellant storage for long-duration space exploration, optical coatings for astrophysical pursuits, oxygen recovery for life support systems, and to improve our understanding of and protection from near-Earth asteroids.

Each of these space technology areas requires dramatic improvements over existing capabilities. New early stage, or low technology readiness-level, technologies could mature into tools that solve the hard challenges facing NASA’s future scientific and human spaceflight missions. Researchers should propose unique, transformational space technologies that address specific topics found in this solicitation.

“Space technology is the underpinning of all of NASA’s future missions,” said Michael Gazarik, NASA’s associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington. “NASA’s collaboration with the National Research Council and the agency’s recent Strategic Space Technology Investment Plan have helped us identify areas where new, cross-cutting space technologies are needed to enable our future missions. Now we’re reaching out to American universities to tap into the nation’s best and brightest minds to help solve these tough technology problems.”

This solicitation requests proposals on five topic areas. The first topic area seeks new instrument technologies for the exploration of planetary bodies within our solar system. Innovative technology advances are needed to support the instruments that scientists will need to better understand the history, climates, evidence of past life and future potential habitability of planets and moons within the solar system.

Spaceflight architectures for future human space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit will require technologies and capabilities not available today, such as long duration storage of cryogenic propellants in a zero gravity environment. Under a second topic area for this solicitation, NASA is particularly interested in proposals regarding how to mature fundamental experimental and computational solutions to address the challenges of cryogenic storage of liquid hydrogen.

Through a third topic area for this solicitation, NASA is seeking advances in optics technologies to enable the challenging science measurements that may contribute to the understanding of the first moments of the universe, the characterization of galaxy evolution over time and the characterization of newly found exoplanets.

As future exploration missions extend beyond low-Earth orbit, vehicles and extraterrestrial surface habitats housing astronauts will need to be highly reliable and self-sufficient; the opportunity for resupply of consumables diminishes the farther from home you go. The fourth topic area of this solicitation seeks novel technologies that will help close the atmosphere revitalization loop aboard spaceships and surface habitats during long duration space missions. New technologies must have the potential to significantly increase the oxygen recovery rate beyond the current state of the art.

Under a final topic area, NASA is seeking proposals for new technologies to better understand and protect our planet from near-Earth asteroids. Early stage technologies that will help with characterizing, understanding, and planning how to mitigate the threat of near-Earth asteroids are of great interest. These efforts are important for the sustainability and future of our home planet.

NASA expects to make approximately 10 awards this fall, based on the merit of proposals received. Each award will be made for one year with an additional year of research possible. The typical annual award value is expected to be approximately $250,000. Second-year funding will be contingent on the availability of appropriated funds and technical progress. Only accredited U.S. universities may submit proposals to this solicitation. Notices of intent are due by April 29 with proposals due May 21.

To view the Early Stage Innovation NASA Research Announcement and information for submitting proposals, visit:


The solicitation is a part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, which is innovating, developing, testing and flying hardware for use in NASA’s future missions. For more information about NASA’s investment in space technology, visit:


Retiring a giant

I have personally worked at 3 different NASA facilities and
visited at least half a dozen. I also worked for GE Healthcare for
a while, which endeared me to that brand in ways few outside
of GE could understand. So when I first started at Stennis Space
Center (where I currently work) a giant piece
of machinery being uninstalled caught my eye quickly.
This piece of equipment had been on site for probably longer than I
have been alive. At all NASA facilities, and manufacturers like the
one I worked at while I was with GE,
old machinery is surprisingly common. Calling
either GE or NASA “cutting edge” would be an understatement, but
you don’t need glass office desks, or brand
new everything to be cutting edge. Older equipment that
is still in use today is there because it was built to last. I
really loved seeing this article about
the NASA Crawler, which is essentially a
GIANT tank that carries the shuttles
out to launch. In the article it talks about upgrades to the
system, but how it couldn’t possibly be replaced. When I see
machines like GE Space Heater get retired it feels a little like
the changing of the guard to me, and I only hope the
equipment that our generation builds is not only better, but
performs as long as the equipment our grandparents built.

The atrophy of ambition

Several weeks ago the Obama administration called to end the Constellation Space program. The Human Spaceflight Review was organized to review the Constellation program do to some concerns about the Aries I rocket amongst other things. They concluded that the program was underfunded, and the payload capabilities of the Aries I were lacking. Speaking as someone who was working in the space industry at the time I agree that the program would have been substantially better with the added funding, and the Aries I rocket should have been rethought before it reached the development stages it was at.

This was a hard decision for the president, but a choice was made that I didn’t see coming, and I still don’t fully understand. They decided to cut the entire Constellation program indefinitely postponing visiting the moon and mars. They did not cut the budget. They instead gave NASA a small increase in there budget, but gave them NO direction as to what to do with it. They said that they wanted to focus on “technology”. I love tech as much as the next guy, but it is an incredibly vague term.

I can see where the politicians are coming from in a sense. Since I first started working summer internships in aerospace I’ve had the “what’s the point of NASA?” conversation many times. For people who don’t see the grandeur and beauty of space, or understand the accomplishment and pride that not only the US has for having put a living person on the moon, this is a difficult conversation. A lot of people in my generation who didn’t see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon when it happened don’t feel passionately about going back.

So what do you say to someone who doesn’t care about space to justify the space program, because honestly it doesn’t matter to everyone? Technology. Without NASA we wouldn’t have satellites, cell phones, GPS, actual data about global warming, and countless materials that are used to make a lot of the super cool stuff we have today. You could argue that we would have gotten there without NASA, that the military would have pursued the technology, and you would be right. But the military only has there best interests at heart, and they only give up there technology when they are done with it. Meaning that we would be at least a generation behind, if not three. Who knows, instead of being excited about having apps on your phone, you would just now be getting your first camera phone.

So with that idea NASA is asked to develop technology, but without anyone telling them to what end. It would be like asking a teenage boy to build muscle but taking away his weights and not teaching him anything about exercise. Large for profit companies like General Electric, and 3M have been filling technological needs for years. They know how to probe the market for what is needed, design it, and then market it. Large government entities like NASA are not adept for things like that.

For decades NASA has been coming up with mind blowing technology, but it isn’t until someone else comes along and figures out good everday applications and licenses it that we get the amazing tech that we love. If you expect NASA to just come up with cool technology that people will actually be able to use then they are going to have to seriously beef up there marketing department. Because the NASA marketing department’s sole product for the last 50 years has been NASA. And if you check out any of there podcasts, or twitter feeds you’ll see they’re doing an awesome job at that.

But without the challenge, neigh the dream, of human space flight, how do you expect them to come up with anything more awesome than what they already have. The Wright brothers to take there ingenuity and make cars I don’t think it we would be talking about them. Or if you asked Edward Armstrong to work out the bugs of AM radio instead of ditching them to develop FM radio we’d probably still be listening to AM when our CD player doesn’t work.

The point being that NASA directly and indirectly employs many of the smartest minds in our country, and to take away the task at hand without giving them any specific direction will not only cost the country jobs, it will cost us ambition and ingenuity. Two of the things that have made the United States what they are. And without space flight what will inspire the next generation of rocket scientists?