Since he was a small child, Jason Dunn has been interested in space and exploration. He watched the space shuttle launch near his Florida home and attended the University of Central Florida in Orlando to be near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. It wasn’t until college, however, that Dunn became convinced that people of his generation could travel and live in space.
While in college, Dunn earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in aerospace engineering and co-founded Earthrise Space Inc., the first student-led team vying for the Google Lunar X Prize, a competition that promises a grand prize of $20 million to the first team that succeeds in sending a commercial robotic spacecraft to the Moon by the end of 2015, traveling across the lunar surface and sending back imagery.
In 2010, Dunn moved to California to found Made in Space, attend Singularity University and work for Moon Express, another Google Lunar X Prize competitor.
Made in Space, a company based at Moffett Field, Calif., is focused on bringing additive manufacturing to space. With funding from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program, Made in Space is preparing to send the first 3-D printer to the international space station in 2014.
Dunn spoke recently with SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner.
What prompted your interest in becoming a space entrepreneur?
In college, I joined a club called Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS). At the time I thought it was just a club that built model rockets because that’s what this group did. But a year later, my chapter held the national conference called Space Vision. There, I met Peter Diamandis and Bob Richards [two of the organization’s founders] and learned that SEDS was more than a rocketry club.
Diamandis gave a talk and said that within our lifetimes we would irreversibly leave this planet. That was the first time somebody told me I could live in space. That’s when I started to get interested in the idea of entrepreneurship — not just working for NASA one day on a big team, but going out and creating something NASA and everyone else in the space industry wasn’t doing that would help us get closer to that future when we could live in space.
Why did you start Earthrise Space?
At another SEDS Space Vision conference, I heard about the Google Lunar X Prize. Then, I heard that another student at the University of Central Florida wanted to start a team. I went to his first meeting. A couple of us who were graduate students ran the numbers and realized that somewhere around the $20 million mark, you might be able to do one of these missions. So we created Earthrise Space to give students real, hands-on experience building spacecraft and flying spacecraft.
Why did you leave Earthrise Space?
I moved to California to start Made in Space. At the same time, I was employed as the first project engineer at Moon Express, another Google Lunar X Prize competitor co-founded by Bob Richards. It was an incredible opportunity. I was the manager for all the payloads. Moon Express is located at Moffett Field, near Made in Space. It was a good way to kick-start Made in Space in typical Silicon Valley style.
Were you familiar with 3-D printing before you started Made in Space?
Being an aerospace engineer, I was always surrounded by it. I saw it in the labs at school and at conferences. Then I graduated and wasn’t thinking much about it. Singularity University helped bring that back into focus. We started by looking at the problems of the space industry. When you get down to it, the No. 1 problem is that everything we’ve ever put in space has come from the bottom of this gravitational well. If you could just manufacture stuff in space, you get around that problem.
Did you think initially that you’d be able to modify terrestrial 3-D printers for microgravity?
When we started, we laid out a big vision: One day everything you need in space can be built there. But we have to start somewhere. So we laid out the first three steps to bring manufacturing to space as quickly as possible: Take the technology to zero gravity, learn how to make it work and adapt the technology for the space station. Space station was very important to us because that’s the only place people actually live in space today. So if we can give them the benefit of manufacturing, we can immediately show a use case.
Because the goal was to bring manufacturing to space as quickly as possible, we had high hopes we could make some very basic modifications to a commercial 3-D printer and fly it. Through NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, we flew dozens of commercial printers, as well as one we built ourselves, on zero-gravity flights. None of them worked.
These printers were designed with gravity in mind. The build platforms, belts and pulleys use gravity to hold them in place. When you remove gravity, everything starts to float fractions of a millimeter. That throws off the print. On top of that, thermal characteristics change when you remove gravity. You have to come up with new ways to keep things hot and keep things cold.
So what did you do?
At the end of the day, it was obvious that we needed to design a printer for zero gravity and for space station. NASA and the other space agencies take care to make sure everything put on the space station is extremely safe and reliable. Not a single commercial 3-D printer in existence could meet the requirements. We would have to replace everything, including all the materials.
What’s the schedule for the first 3-D printer to be sent to the space station?
We are under contract with NASA to send two 3-D printers to space station. The first one is a technology demonstration to understand the long-term effects of microgravity on 3-D printing. In the zero-gravity flights, we only got bursts of weightlessness for 20 seconds at a time. We need to understand what happens over a long period of time before we send a much more capable system to be used for the lifetime of the space station.
What’s the schedule for the first printer?
We are partnered with Marshall Space Flight Center. Made in Space builds the hardware and Marshall does the qualification, flight and implementation. Marshall has secured a flight on Space Exploration Technologies’ fifth commercial resupply mission. That is scheduled around Aug. 1, 2014. We will deliver the hardware to Marshall well before that, probably in early April. It will go through qualification and flight readiness on the NASA side before it launches. We did a bunch of this qualification testing over the summer with our engineering unit. It passed all the initial tests: vibration, electromagnetic interference. The printer could fly today. We are just waiting for launch.
How will parts manufactured in space differ from those launched into orbit?
That’s one of the most incredible aspects of Made in Space. With 3-D printing, complexity is free. The most complex object is just as easy for the printer to build as the simplest object. The printer doesn’t know the difference.
The next interesting thing is that launch requirements go away. Everything we’ve built to send into space has been built with launch requirements in mind. It had to survive vertical loads of 10-plus Gs during launch and vibration frequencies. It had to fit inside the diameter of a rocket. All for an eight-minute journey into space. Then all of the sudden, it is in weightlessness, a totally different environment.
Without those launch requirements, we can reinvent space mission architecture. We can build structures that are very complex and might not even support their own weight on Earth. We can build parts that are delicate, parts that just snap together. We don’t need fasteners and nuts and bolts anymore.
Can 3-D printers build cubesats?
We think the answer is yes. We’ve had a number of government and commercial groups say they want to build their cubesats in space. We are working with NASA on this. In the beginning, we will be sending electronic components and circuit boards into space, 3-D printing the satellite structure, snapping the electronics into the structure and launching it that way. It may not look like a cubesat anymore, or maybe it will. That’s open to whoever wants to build it.
What’s ahead for Made in Space?
The way we look at it, we are always trying to anticipate where additive manufacturing technology is headed and figure out how to use it for space. There is a lot happening behind the scenes in our research and development group to pave the way from this initial 3-D printer to further manufacturing in space.
The first printer will be useful. It will be able to produce an estimated 30 percent of the spare parts used on the space station. But it’s just the beginning. It’s going to be a testbed for future technologies. We have researchers looking at how they can use it to test out the design and manufacturing of structures they might one day build with a different device.
Why do space missions need 3-D printers?
It’s about building a close-loop system for manufacturing so the crew doesn’t have to rely on the ground for support. A 3-D printer on the space station is really useful, but a 3-D printer on a Mars mission may be absolutely necessary. When NASA and private groups look at how to send people back to the Moon and send people to Mars, these are the things they have to consider. We are working on Earth independency. What will it take to one day build everything in space? Not just tools and spare parts or even small satellites, but literally everything.