When astronauts need to fix broken parts in orbit using specialized tools, the replacement parts and necessary equipment traditionally must be delivered to them from Earth, delaying science and adding to the cost of the mission. Chicago native and engineer Curtis Manning and the Rapid Prototyping research team at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., are developing ways for astronauts to simply push a button – and quickly create the required part or tool right on the spot.

Manning works in the Marshall Center’s Rapid Prototyping Laboratory. The lab consists of seven state-of-the-art machines, each of which can build – without benefit of any kind of mold – intricate, detailed pieces of hardware using metallic dust, liquid resin and even a special kind of plastic that looks like fishing line.

“Instead of starting at a drawing board, we start with a computer-aided design, or CAD drawing,” Manning said. “We program our computers and machines with that CAD drawing, and the machine builds solid, three-dimensional objects with incredible detail, even hollow piping or a threaded hole for bolts.”

The machines can build small models, full-sized machine parts or ready-to-work tools. The technology permits engineers and designers to see their concepts realized in three dimensions. They can even perform basic testing on the prototype before committing to traditional construction or fabrication of parts.

Once the process is perfected, Manning believes it’s just a matter of time to make rapid prototyping cost-effective enough to perform in space. “We’re relatively inexpensive,” he said. “In the future, we could devise a process that would use raw materials in space to create whatever an astronaut might need.”

That way, instead of waiting for a misplaced or worn-out part or tool to be delivered from Earth, or returning a satellite to the ground for repair, an astronaut may simply upload CAD drawings or programs, feed them into a rapid prototyping process, load the raw material and quickly build the part or tool to finish the job.

Manning’s interest in rapid prototyping is nearly as old as the fledgling technology itself. He graduated in 1990 from Oakwood College in Huntsville with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Having minored in mathematics, he began teaching math at Oakwood soon thereafter. In 1994, he accepted a position at the Marshall Center – less than a year after the Rapid Prototyping Lab was founded.

“It is such an amazing place to work,” Manning said. “Every day, we are making strides to discover new methods and materials to optimize the rapid prototyping process and help us create the ultimate system needed to revolutionize our exploration efforts.”

While passionate about his work, Manning also is passionate about spending quality time with his wife, Renee, and two daughters, Courtnee and Chanel. He also enjoys playing basketball and exercising during his spare time. Manning also serves as a leader at the First Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Huntsville as an elder and director of youth ministries. But NASA’s mission is never far from his thoughts.

“I want to begin working with educational institutions to raise awareness not just of this technology, but also of the career opportunities with NASA,” he said. “Our high schools, colleges and universities hold NASA’s future. I hope to be among those who carry NASA’s story, vision and career opportunities to them.”

More information on the Marshall Center’s Rapid Prototyping Laboratory can be found at: http://ed.msfc.nasa.gov/ncam