When the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched in September, it was a landmark event. It marked the first successful launch of a recycled spacecraft and its payload into orbit around Earth. But there was another groundbreaking achievement that happened during this historic flight. This article is an exclusive inside look at the world’s first 3D-printed rocket engine injector, which made history when it was used to help power one of NASA’s most important missions yet!
As both the Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft zoomed towards orbit, NASA scientists were smiling with pride, because aboard that rocket was equipment crucial to new research on growing plants in space. This payload will help bring astronauts one step closer to self-sufficiency during deep space exploration missions. According to NASA plant physiologist Ray Wheeler, “The experiments will help us develop new techniques and strategies for sustainable life support on future long-duration space missions, and give us the opportunity to explore a unique planetary surface—an asteroid.” But there’s another reason NASA put this equipment onto a recycled SpaceX rocket. By doing so, they were testing out a new way of getting things into orbit around Earth.
NASA’s Advanced Manufacturing Initiative (AM) is hard at work developing cutting-edge 3D printing techniques to create lightweight, yet incredibly tough components that can withstand the harsh conditions of space travel. AM project manager Niki Werkheiser says, “We are working with NASA’s Technology Demonstration Missions Program Office, and we’re developing technologies that can be used by future astronauts on missions to an asteroid or Mars.”
In fact, NASA has been pushing the boundaries of 3D printing for years. In 2013, they tested out a new metal alloy printer from manufacturer Made in Space Incorporated. This pioneering machine allows astronauts to print out tools and objects that can actually be used in space. And it’s this printer that helped make the opportunity for project VEGGIE possible. Here is a more detailed look at some of the parts 3D printing made possible on SpaceX-9:
The first big part 3D printing made possible on SpaceX-9 was the first stage of the rocket itself.
It all starts with a huge cylindrical tube called the “boattail,” which is melted in half and fused together to create a hollow cylinder. Then this hardware is loaded onto an automated steel frame system, which uses lasers to heat and melt solid plastic pellets to create the necessary molten form. The system then does a computer analysis to ensure that everything will come out perfectly in the end, with all pieces fitting together like Legos.
This is all done at room temperature, so there’s no risk of thermal shock or damage to any components. This means it can be done in space, and this is exactly what NASA plans to do. This process completely eliminates the need for welding or brazing materials together because it can all be done with a simple fusing machine! To top it off, the result is an incredibly lightweight structure that’s better than anything we’ve ever built before in terms of its structural integrity and fuel efficiency. This part alone will save NASA tons of money in future space missions, which is great news for taxpayers!
This part is pretty simple, but it’s extremely important. It’s a life support system made up of five tanks called the secondary cargo restraint truss assembly (SCRTA). These pieces are vital to making sure astronauts have a steady supply of oxygen and other gases, and they make sure that any type of big project on the ISS can be done safely.