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3D printing planes not enough? Print a spaceship.

SaturnWe’ve brought you news about the manufacturing plant that built parts that moved the Mars Rover, and we’ve brought you plenty of news about 3D printing, even 3D printing’s role in a future moon base. Today we bring you the news that NASA’s future rocket production will rely on 3D printers.

Popular Mechanics recently reported on the combination of the space program with 3D printing. According to the article, NASA’s engineers are already testing 3D printers for making engine parts that will go into the Space Launch System (SLS), the vehicle that will take manned missions back to the moon, to asteroids and even to Mars.

The International Space Station will soon even have it’s own 3D printer. It’s hoped that it will allow astronauts to make tools, spare parts and other necessities for missions in space, rather than have them shipped via galactic UPS.

NASA’s agency chief Charles Bolden told Popular Mechanics, “My chief technologist Mason Peck and I talk every week. He envisions somewhere down the road we’ll launch with nothing except an additive manufacturing set of machines or apparatus; everything we need we’ll produce when we get there. It could be incredible.”

How deep is NASA’s commitment to 3D printing?

Several small projects are already underway. One of NASA’s research centers is working on using 3D printing to develop small satellites. At the Kennedy Space Center technicians are looking at 3D printing for using lunar, martian or asteroid regolith as the raw material for 3D printers to use. Then there’s research into using the technology in propulsion systems. Engineers are looking at a process called selective laser melting (SLM) for doing the difficult job of building components for the SLS engines, which are called the RS-25 and J-2X.

Selective Laser Melting

The SLM process involves using lasers to melt and fuse finely powdered substances such as the nickel-based alloy called Inconnel, which is used in aeronautics, into a predetermined pattern. NASA’s current SLM machine is only able to build objects of about one-half cubic foot in volume. But John Vickers, assistant manager of the Materials and Processes Laboratory at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, told Popular Mechanics that he believes that the device could go on to build larger scaled engine components and that one day all of the parts needed would be built with additive technology, also known as 3D printing.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that careers in manufacturing go beyond making t-shirts and coasters in a factory. Learning about 3D printing technology, and exploring a career in manufacturing, could also lead a student to a career as exciting as helping develop the future of NASA’s space program. Something you help build could end up on an asteroid, the moon or Mars.

photo credit: Ethan T. Allen via photopin cc

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