Over the last several years, the rise of 3D printing and 3D-printed goods has paved the way for technological advancements in nearly every industry. If you had told someone just five years ago people in 2015 would’ve successfully 3D-printed a house, a batch of human tissue, or even an FDA-approved drug, they’d have likely called you crazy. Thing is, those projects aren’t even in the same ballpark of crazy compared to what NASA’s currently cooking up at its Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Since 2013, the massive space agency has taken to the task of not only 3D-printing working rocket parts, but have also run the parts through extremely rigorous heat tests to see how they stand up to traditionally manufactured parts. Guess what? The rocket parts passed NASA’s hot-fire tests and passed with flying colors. Literally. During each of the eleven main stage hot-fire tests, NASA burned liquid oxygen and gaseous hydrogen through the 3D-printed parts which burned at temperatures close to 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit, while producing a mesmerizing green flame.
NASA propulsion engineer Sandra Elam Green oversaw each of the tests and also inspected the parts thereafter, reporting “no difference in performance” between a 3D-printed rocket part and one manufactured the —dare we say it— old-fashioned way. During the post-test inspections, it was also shown that the 3D-printed injectors remained in “excellent condition” allowing the engineers the opportunity to instantly continue running harsh tests on the parts.
“We saw no difference in performance of the 3D-printed injectors compared to the traditionally manufactured injectors,” Greene says. “Two separate 3D-printed injectors operated beautifully during all hot-fire tests.”
What’s particularly intriguing about 3D-printed rocket injectors — other than the fact they’re, you know, 3D-printed — is how much time and money the 3D-printing process saves compared to the traditional method. Instead of a six-month, $10k fabrication process for traditional injectors, the 3D-printed parts cost roughly $5k to make and were ready for testing in just three weeks. Whereas the traditional part is comprised of four separate parts requiring five different welds, a state-of-the-art 3D printer produced the same injectors as just one piece, which needed minimal machining afterward.
Obviously these developments point to incredible benefits for NASA’s projects here on Earth, but the space agency also has its sights set on utilizing 3D printing on the International Space Station. In a partnership with the engineering and manufacturing company Made in Space, NASA outfitted the ISS with a Zero-G Printer capable of allowing those onboard to simply download and print a wide range of necessary tools and objects. The partnership has already proven a success as a team aboard the ISS printed a working ratchet with the Zero-G Printer just last December.
As NASA continues to perfect and test its use of additive manufacturing, there’s no denying the potential it has. Marshall Center’s Engineering Directorate Chris Singer even acknowledges it allows the agency to explore new mission possibilities by giving it the chance to print rocket parts, or even an “entire spacecraft.” So yeah, if you told someone five years ago about just half of these technological developments they’d definitely think you were stark-raving mad.