3-D printing and in-orbit manufacturing promise to transform space missions

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This article appeared in the July 17, 2017 issue of SpaceNews Magazine.

At Made In Space, the Silicon Valley startup that sent the first 3-D printer to the International Space Station, employees joke about the ways their technology would take the suspense out of popular space movies.

Apollo 13, for example, would be a pretty boring film if the astronauts had a 3-D printer to create adapters for their carbon dioxide scrubbers. Likewise, The Martian would have been a much different story if Mark Watney had access to additive manufacturing on Mars.

Joking aside, Made In Space is changing the way people plan for spaceflight missions by demonstrating that tools, spare parts and spaceflight hardware can be manufactured in orbit. In 2014, Made In Space’s Zero-G Printer produced the first parts on ISS. In 2016, NASA and ISS national laboratory customers began using Made In Space’s larger Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) to print more complex objects than the Zero-G printer with a variety of aerospace grade materials.

Made In Space’s vision goes far beyond spare parts. The company is building Archinaut, a sophisticated 3-D printer equipped with a robotic arm to manufacture and assemble complex structures in orbit such as satellite reflectors and antennas. In the long run, additive manufacturing will enable government agencies and commercial firms to conduct ambitious missions more safely because 3-D printers help missions respond to unexpected events, said Andrew Rush, who served as Made In Space’s outside general counsel before taking the helm in 2015 as the company, which now employs 50, was expanding rapidly. Rush, who studied physics before attending law school and calls himself “a Florida boy raised on Robert Heinlein and NASA,” spoke July 10 with SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner.

Andrew Rush, Made In Space president and chief executive. Credit: Made In Space
Andrew Rush, Made In Space president and chief executive. Credit: Made In Space

How is Made In Space working with NASA?

We break it into two primary areas: manufacturing things in space that are going to be used in space and manufacturing things that will ultimately be brought back to Earth. The ISS is the cornerstone of development and/or actual commercial implementation of those developments, business models and capabilities. We have the world’s first commercial manufacturing facility in service on the ISS with AMF. We are manufacturing parts for a variety of customers on a weekly basis. That technology serves as a stepping stone for us to improve it, to make astronauts’ lives easier and help them carry out their missions more effectively. There are unique foibles to doing manufacturing in space. We are taking those lessons and putting them into making the device and its successors better so we can support activities in low-Earth orbit as well as activities deeper into space, whether lunar orbit, the moon, Martian orbit or on Mars.

How do you see that work continuing?

The AMF is designed to be modular and upgradeable. We can swap out the heads, use new materials and even fundamentally different deposition techniques. We plan to upgrade that device in the next three to six months to add in more capability. Our ultimate vision is that in-space manufacturing, inspection and assembly will enable us to make parts, spares, fixes and new research systems for the crew of ISS and one day for deep space exploration.

We have been studying this for a long time and have come to the conclusion that manufacturing lets you digitally stock all the spares and fixes and parts that you want to take on a deep space mission, which helps close the mass budget because if you count up all the stuff that you would like to take, you typically wind up with five times more stuff than you can afford to take. By bringing a manufacturing facility with you, you can take those things and enable those missions.

That same vision will make commercial activities more efficient and cost effective.

Commercial operators don’t want to fly a $1 billion worth of spares. They want things available just in time rather than planning for all contingencies.

How are astronauts using AMF now?

One of the coolest things we have done recently is help astronauts conduct radiation measurement experiments inside of the [Bigelow Expandable Activity Module] BEAM. The astronauts realized they could do more science if they covered the sensors in BEAM with some known material of a known thickness. We manufactured three different sized shields for the sensors. The astronauts swapped those sensors out over a couple weeks to measure the radiation within BEAM. That was a cool, responsive manufacturing run. We’ve also made hand tools, a variety of different objects and sensor adaptors to help the astronauts do maintenance on station.

Why is in-orbit manufacturing important?

It enables you to do the mission and to do it in a way that’s safe. It is inherently flexible and adaptable. Rather than jury rigging something for contingencies, you could make something that is responsive. You have the benefit of people on Earth being able to design a fix, test that fix, adapt it and send you a file.

Also, we firmly believe in-space manufacturing will change the way we design satellites. Building things like reflectors and antennas on orbit will make them more cost effective and capable. You can stretch the mass and volume you deploy to space much further if you eliminated the constraint of launch on your deployables.

The other thing we feel very strongly about is the promise of materials manufactured in a space environment having properties that are valuable from an economic and technological perspective.

What should NASA and industry do to spur in-orbit manufacturing?

NASA is doing helpful things now like having the ISS national lab. We have been able to prove out and scale up commercial in-space manufacturing. It’s a really big jump to go from tabletop [3-D printing] to $100 million or $200 million or $300 million satellites. Its less of a big jump to go from tabletop [3-D printing] to a small payload on ISS, to a slightly larger payload on ISS. Then we can say, “Look at the technology we have proven. Look at the customers who are buying the things we’ve produced.” Then we can jump to a commercial free flyer or commercial space station. From an industry perspective, we need to take full advantage of station and of the other launch opportunities that exist, and to work with NASA and other government agencies to understand what is the transition plan, what are the schedules and what are the roadblocks to meeting those schedules for commercial capabilities to exist before ISS goes away.

What is the latest on your optical fiber campaign?

It’s going really well. The flight unit is built and we are scheduled to fly on a [SpaceX] Dragon this year. We have produced fiber in our facility on the ground and are looking forward to flying that. We will be flying the payload multiple times on multiple flights because the focus is on making the minimum viable product that is scalable.

This is a fully robotic capability. The astronauts just plug it in. We send the signal for it to go. It pulls the fiber and monitors diameter. When it’s done, it can switch over to another free form, that’s the starting material we use, and produce more fiber without any special environment on the ISS, without significant crew involvement other than installation. From our preliminary analyses, we feel that style of robotic operation with only humans on the ground in the loop will be ultimately how we scale this up. We can’t count on people [in space] to be available to help.

Is optical fiber the killer app for in-orbit manufacturing?

We believe it is. There is a lot of research on materials processing in space. There is a lot of interesting stuff out there. This is the one [application] that checks all the boxes from a business perspective.

You lodged a protest with the Government Accountability Office of a NASA Small Business Innovative Research award to FOMS Inc. to work on optical fiber manufacturing in space. Why did you lodge that?

With our optical fiber manufacturing program, we chose to build on our expertise operating on ISS with our AMF. We chose to develop this technology in a quick, nimble fashion by doing it commercially, by not going the SBIR route. We’ve gone from saying, “Let’s do this” to flight hardware in about two years, which is half or less the time it takes for an SBIR program to go from conception to demonstration in space. We’ve made significant progress. In fact, we are significantly further ahead of the particular award we challenged. We were trying to point that out and say, “This technology already exists. It has already been developed. That obviates the need for it to be developed again.”

Were you disappointed GAO dismissed the protest?

We were disappointed but we are moving on. I’m personally very proud of our team and excited to see the fruits of their labors when we produce fiber on station. We have a lot of potential customers who are very excited about that. We look forward to demonstrating that and opening up this industrial use of space.

What progress have you made on Archinaut?

We’ve made a lot of great progress. The first year of Archinaut is focused on demonstrating suspended structure additive manufacturing technology in a space-like environment, in a thermal vacuum chamber. We successfully concluded that test campaign about 10 days ago and are moving forward with additional development and testing. We will be making more substantive announcements about that in the coming weeks.

We’ve done a lot of development on material characterization and on structural characterization because one of the amazing things about being able to do additive manufacturing of these extended structures is being able to make something that is customized and adapted for the environment.

One of the other cool things we have done, which is a nice tie-in between the AMF and Archinaut development program with NASA, is we manufactured some structural cross sections optimized for the space environment on AMF on orbit on the ISS to validate their printability in microgravity. We prove on the ground we can manufacture these structures in the thermal vac and we reconfirmed we can manufacture these structures in microgravity.