Jan 15, 2016 | By Andre

In an effort to support the development of domestic rather than foreign (read: Russian) rocket launch solutions, American aerospace manufacturers SpaceX and Orbital ATK have been awarded a combined $241 million in contracts—a record-breaking number—to develop advanced prototypes for American-made rocket engines, with 3D printing technology set to play a big role in their respective next-generation designs.

Ever since US President Barrack Obama outlined his administration’s space policy in 2010, there has been a growing shift to use private aerospace companies to design, manufacture and operate rocket launch vehicles. With those policies now firmly in place, companies like SpaceX and Orbital ATK have participated in ISS cargo resupply (such as Orbital ATK sending the first Eurpoean 3D printer to the ISS), as well as various satellite launch missions using their respective rocket technologies.

And while there have been a few setbacks, specifically with the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explosion in June of 2015 and an Orbital ATK Antares explosion in October of 2014, the successes have outweighed the failures. Astronaut Scott Kelly once famously tweeted from the International Space Station that "space is hard". That's putting it lightly if you ask me, but even still, the show must go on.

Confidence in commercial space flight remains high as is evidenced by the US Air Force's recent commitment of a record $241 million in combined contracts via its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program to Orbital ATK and SpaceX, to develop next-generation rocket engine prototypes in part using additive manufacturing technology.

Orbital ATK was awarded $47 million and will invest $31 million of its own money to develop three prototypes for propulsion systems. As for SpaceX, it received $33.6 million and will invest a full $67 million to develop a prototype of its re-usable Raptor propulsion system, used in the upper stage of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

The Raptor Rocket’s propulsion system is particularly exciting, as not only is it set to become SpaceX’s most powerful engine yet, but will be manufactured primarily using 3D printed parts. SpaceX plans to eventually use this powerful 3D printed rocket engine in missions that will see both cargo and astronauts carried to Mars.

While part of the push is to allow the US space program to transition away from its reliance on Russian-made rockets, it’s also because these two companies now have the technological expertise to get the job done. Each company is guaranteed at least six flights to the ISS through the deal.

Lieutenant General Samuel Greaves, the Air Force’s program executive officer for space has said that, “these awards are essential in order to solidify U.S. assured access to space, transition the EELV (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle) program away from strategic foreign reliance, and support the U.S. launch industry’s commercial viability in the global market.”  

As a prerequisite, at least one-third of the cost of each project would need to come from the respective companies and the contract will run through to the end of 2019. The rocket technologies that will be focused on include Orbital’s GEM 63XL rocket motor, the Common Booster Segment motor, an extendable Nozzle for the BE-3U (related to Jeff Buzos’s Blue Origin Program) and of course SpaceX’s 3D printed Raptor Rocket propulsion system.

An exciting element to all of this news is the growing influence 3D printing has on rocket design and manufacture. As mentioned above, Orbital ATK was involved in sending the first European 3D printer to the ISS; Blue Origin had over 400 3D Printed parts on its first New Sheppard flight back in June of 2015; Aerojet Rocketdyne was awarded a $1.6 billion RS-25 rocket engine contract with a lot of 3D printing in play; SpaceX has successfully tested SuperDraco 3D printed engines; and lets not forget NASA’s role in securing 3D printing’s future in space.

So while the recent funding announcement is big news for commercial space travel and for reducing reliance on foreign rockets from an American perspective, it is also a great chance for 3D printing to continue its advance in just about every facet of making engine design more efficient and cost effective.

Additionally, beyond the rocket development contracts that were just awarded to Orbital ATK and SpaceX, further contracts with Aerojet Rocketdyne are already in negotiations. A recent service statement clearly suggests that “the Air Force is still in negotiations with the remaining offerors and subsequent awards, if any, will occur over the next few months.” 

The Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program isn’t the US Air Force’s only ongoing project to bring aerospace manufacturing back home and gradually wean itself off of its reliance on foreign, and particularly Russian-made rockets.  The Booster Propulsion Technology Maturation Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) award has a similar goal, and has also been granted to two aerospace companies invested in 3D printing: Moog won $728K to develop metal 3D printed rocket engine parts, while Johns Hopkins took home $545K to develop 3D printed rocket engine coolers.    



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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Robotbeat wrote at 1/15/2016 4:49:51 PM:

You should show a picture of an actual SpaceX rocket, not a Delta IV (which is a ULA rocket). Even better, SpaceX releases their images into the public domain, so you can freely use them: http://www.spacex.com/media

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