Commercial space projects tend not to be simple handoffs from public agencies but an extended handshake, and a couple of recent government programs involving 3D-printed technology are just such collaborations.
Most recently, Aerojet Rocketdyne was tapped to work up standards for other companies to meet in manufacturing 3D printed rocket engine components for use in U.S. aerospace programs. The Rancho Cordova, Calif.-based company’s $6 million government contract was announced Jan. 5.
The award is part of a comprehensive push to transition away from the U.S. Air Force and NASA dependence on Russian-made engines such as those now used on the Atlas V launch vehicle. Aerojet Rocketdyne has extensive experience with additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3D printing.
“New liquid rocket engine designs — like the AR1 engine we are building to replace the Russian-made RD-180 — are increasingly taking advantage of 3D printing technology because it reduces the amount of time and money required to build these complex components,” said Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of advanced space & launch programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne. “It is imperative that engine manufacturers understand the qualification methodology for this revolutionary technology because of the criticality of the assets they help launch into space.”
Using 3D printing should greatly reduce the cost to produce components, as well as shorten manufacturing time. The standards to be developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne will aim to ensure rigorous engineering and inspection processes are followed when producing and testing 3D printed components.
Last summer, the European Space Agency similarly tapped France-based Airbus Defense and Space to help develop the first spacecraft engine thruster with a 3D-printed combustion engine. Airbus recently completed a series of successful hot-firings of the thruster.
“It demonstrates that performance comparable to a conventional thruster can be obtained through 3D printing,” Airbus project manager Steffen Beyer said. “3D printing offers considerable future savings and should allow shorter production cycles and a more flexible production flow, such as manufacturing on demand.”
Along with boosting commercial space companies, this kind of publicly supervised aerospace development also tends to help the broader private sector. NASA recently estimated that U.S. airlines could realize more than $250 billion dollars in savings in coming years thanks to green-related technologies developed via recent NASA programs.
“If these technologies start finding their way into the airline fleet, our computer models show the economic impact could amount to $255 billion in operational savings between 2025 and 2050,” said Jaiwon Shin, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics research.
In one such development project, NASA teamed with FlexSys of Ann Arbor, Mich., to test a new morphing wing technology that allows an aircraft to seamlessly extend its flaps, leaving no drag-inducing, noise-enhancing gaps for air to flow through. FlexSys and Aviation Partners of Seattle already have announced plans to commercialize this technology.
NASA also worked with General Electric to refine the design of the compressor stage of a turbine engine to improve its aerodynamic efficiency. After testing, NASA engineers realized that future engines employing this technology could save 2.5 percent in fuel burn.