NRC Panel Says 3-D Printing Not a Killer App for Space — Yet

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Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said NASA’s MAVEN orbiter has printed parts. It does not.

WASHINGTON — Additive manufacturing, a trendy technique also known as three-dimensional printing, probably will not spark an in-space manufacturing revolution any time soon, according to a report published July 18 by the National Research Council’s (NRC) Aerospace Engineering Board.

“The specific benefits and potential scope of additive manufacturing remain undetermined, and there has been a substantial degree of exaggeration, even hype, about its capabilities in the short term,” the NRC’s Committee on Space-Based Additive Manufacturing wrote in its report, “3D Printing in Space.”

The committee, which despite its cautionary tone maintained that 3-D printing could one day revolutionize the design of space hardware, prepared its report at the request of NASA and the U.S. Air Force — groups that are not likely to begin printing entire spacecraft on orbit until “substantially in the future,” the panel concluded.

Although there are obvious military applications, including on-orbit manufacture of satellite components, the NRC committee said human spaceflight stands to benefit most from in-space 3-D printing in the near-term. That presents both obvious opportunities for NASA to test the technology at the international space station and obvious obstacles to industry investment, the panel said.

“Because some of the most obvious applications are for human spaceflight, the government cannot expect private industry to sponsor space-based additive manufacturing on its own,” the panel said.

While the aerospace industry has made “extensive” investments in ground-based additive manufacturing, the NRC found no clear profit motive that would persuade manufacturers to pay out of their own pockets to develop the automated robotic systems required to evolve ground-based 3-D printing systems into useful on-orbit printing stations.

When additive manufacturing finally does migrate into orbit, it “is likely to have a significant impact on crewed space operations,” the committee concluded. NASA is looking to get the ball rolling this year by sending a small 3-D printer provided by Made in Space of Mountain View, California, to the international space station aboard a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. cargo resupply mission slated to launch Sept. 12.

NASA wants to find out whether additive manufacturing can help astronauts make replacements for interior ISS components that fail on orbit. The committee endorsed NASA’s soon-to-launch experiment, noting that 3-D printing “could reduce existing logistics requirements for the International Space Station and future long-duration human space missions.”

Overall, however, the committee said ground-based additive manufacturing “has more immediate and long-term impacts to reduce cost and increase performance of space systems.” Further, “[t]he committee notes that the value of this technology will be demonstrated in the nearer term at the component level rather than the manufacture of entire spacecraft,” the report reads.

Indeed, spacecraft builder Lockheed Martin Space Systems is among those singing the praises of 3-D printing.

“It’s not a fad,” James Crocker, Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ vice president and general manager for civil space, said during a media day at the company’s Global Vision Center in Arlington, Virginia, in June. “One of the most powerful things I’ve seen in 3-D printing is in fact the ability to build things that could never be machined … lightweight, very strong structures. They almost look organic. Printed parts don’t look anything like you’d think.”

Lockheed has already fitted a number of operational spacecraft with printed parts, including NASA’s Jupiter orbiter Juno, which launched in 2011 and is set to arrive at the gas giant in 2016.

Even the ventilation system for Orion, the crew capsule Lockheed is building for NASA for a pair of missions to lunar orbit scheduled for 2018 and 2021, contains a part printed in titanium, according to the company’s Orion deputy program manager, Larry Price.