3D Printing Technology Now In The Hands Of NASA Engineers
February 6, 2014

3D Printing Technology Now In The Hands Of NASA Engineers

[ Watch the Video: NASA Joins 3D Printing Partnership ]

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

NASA is getting on board with the quickly growing 3D printing industry, saying it offers a compelling alternative to manufacturing.

The space agency said on Wednesday that it has launched a number of formal programs to prototype new tools for future missions using this new manufacturing technique.

"We're not driving the additive manufacturing train, industry is," Ted Swanson, the assistant chief for technology for the Mechanical Systems Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md, said in a statement. "But NASA has the ability to get on-board to leverage it for our unique needs."

Three-dimensional printing has been getting more and more popular over the past few years, with companies like MakerBot developing at-home machines to others like MarkForged developing a machine that uses carbon fiber for printing.

NASA said it, along with the US Air Force, DOE, NIST and NSF, is investing in a public-private partnership known as America Makes to transition 3D printing into mainstream US manufacturing. The space agency said America Makes, formerly known as the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institution, is a forward-leaning effort that recognizes how valuable 3D printing is to the US economy.

"NASA's work with additive manufacturing should enable us to be smart buyers and help us save time, expense, and mass," LaNetra Tate, the advanced-manufacturing principal investigator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate's Game Changing Development Program, said in a statement. "With additive manufacturing, we have an opportu­nity to push the envelope on how this technology might be used in zero gravity — how we might ultimately manufacture in space."

NASA engineers are looking at how their instruments and missions could benefit from an industry that utilizes 3D printers. Matt Showalter, who is overseeing Goddard's disparate 3-D printing efforts, said that it is in the national interest to collaborate with other institutions on this powerful tool, and see how NASA can benefit from it.

The agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida is looking into how a 3D printer could use soil on the moon or Mars as feedstock to build 3D habitats and other structures. NASA said its Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama is using 3D printing to create components for the J-2X and RS-25 rocket engines. This center is also collaborating with Made in Space to develop a 3D printer astronauts could use on the International Space Station.

NASA isn’t the only space agency interested in using 3D printing technology for future missions. The European Space Agency said last year that it wants to use the technology to print off a lunar habitat. ESA said the technology offers a potential means of facilitating lunar settlement with reduced logistics from Earth.