MOUNTAIN VIEW, California – For nine years, Made In Space executives and engineers have shared their vision for a future when satellites, solar arrays and large antennas are manufactured in orbit. During an Aug. 26 tour, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine clearly endorsed that vision.
“As an agency, we have always had constraints when it comes to accessing space,” Bridenstine said during a tour of Made In Space headquarters here. “One of the major constraints is the size of a fairing of a rocket and the weight of the things that we launch into space and the amount of materials. All of these constraints drive solutions that are not optimum and cost more.”
If, instead, NASA and its partners in government and industry could “print things in three dimensions in space and then robotically assemble those things, those capabilities are going to be absolutely game changing for NASA and for our partners in the U.S. government and commercial industry,” Bridenstine said.
Since it was founded in 2010, Made In Space has focused on developing and testing those technologies. With NASA support, the company sent the first 3D printer to the International Space Station in 2015. Since then, Made in Space has continued to improve and update microgravity 3D printers. The firm currently operates a commercial Additive Manufacturing Facility on the space station with no government funding, Andrew Rush, Made In Space chief executive, told Bridenstine.
In addition, Made In Space is working under a $73.7 million NASA contract to additively manufacture ten-meter beams onboard Archinaut One, a small satellite equipped with a 3D printer and robotic arm scheduled to reach orbit in 2022.
Rush briefed the NASA Administrator on the status of Archinaut One, pointing out its potential to create extremely large, lightweight structures. Bridenstine said that type of technology could have important applications for NASA’s planned exploration initiatives including the lunar Gateway, a mission to land the next man and first woman on the South Pole of the moon in 2024 and sustained lunar activity beginning in 2028.
“The Gateway is going to be there for 15 years,” Bridenstine said. “It gives us access to more parts of the moon than ever before in human history and it’s sustainable. Think of it as a reusable command and service module in orbit around the moon.”
Made In Space and other contractors are working with NASA to “prove capabilities and technologies that are eventually going to feed forward to that,” Bridenstine said. “These technologies and capabilities are transformational.”
During his visit to Made In Space headquarters, Bridenstine also pointed to NASA’s relationship with Made In Space as an example of a promising public-private partnership. NASA has supported Made In Space through Small Business Innovative Research awards, space transportation and the Archinaut contract. However, “NASA’s investment is only a piece of the puzzle,” Bridenstine said. “The other piece of that puzzle is private investment into the technology.”
Made In Space won the Archinaut One contract through NASA’s Tipping Point program, which requires commercial partners to contribute at least 25 percent of the funding. In addition, Made In Space performs work for other government and commercial customers.
“Why is NASA so keen on private investment,” Bridenstine asked. “Because NASA doesn’t want to be the purchaser, the owner and the operator of all of the hardware and the equipment. We have a vision, especially in low Earth orbit where NASA is a customer … one of many customers.”
Another Made In Space customer is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. During the Aug. 26 tour, Nathan Heidt, Made In Space robotics engineer, showed Bridenstine how the company is pairing additive manufacturing with robotic assembly to produce a large reflector dish composed of eight limbs studded with pegs. A robotic arm wraps copper wire around the pegs.
Since there is not enough room in the Made In Space showroom to test the device, engineers conducted tests recently in a nearby garage. “We got full reflective coverage from this thing,” Heidt said. “This has been a fantastic project. It’s worked out better than we hoped.”
Made In Space also has attracted attention for its efforts to manufacture advanced materials in orbit including Zblan, an optical fiber. The company has flown a device four times in an effort to produce high quality Zblan in microgravity, Rush said, showing Bridenstine a sample of the fiber produced.
“We are now upgrading that device and will fly a larger version in about a year,” he added. “It’s early days, but it’s pretty widely believed now that space-enabled manufacturing of things like Zblan and other classes of materials will be manufactured in low Earth orbit.”