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AMS Spring 2023

Ready for Blast Off? SpaceX 3D Printed SuperDraco Thrusters Prove Themselves Further at Texas Rocket Facility

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SpaceX-Logo-620x149As most of us are aware by now, upon reading multitudes of headlines and watching a myriad of news clips, Elon Musk is a fan of 3D printing. Not only was his Dragon X supply freighter responsible for delivering the first 3D printer to space last year as it unloaded 5,000 pounds of supplies to the International Space Station, but Musk and the SpaceX team themselves have such complete trust in 3D printing that it will also play a large quotient in the new Dragon spacecraft/Falcon 9 rocket combination, responsible for carrying people to the ISS and perhaps saving their lives should there be trouble on launch or in orbit.

3_dragonv2-1024x682Not only are they beginning to use 3D printing in connection with space travel, SpaceX is learning to rely on it–and for all the same benefits other industries are. With 3D printing, SpaceX is able to create their incredibly powerful SuperDraco thrusters (going from zero to 100 mph in 1.2 seconds), which are the critical component of the Crew Dragon’s launch abort system (LAS). This system allows for an emergency landing, possibly saving the lives of the crew, should an emergency occur in transit.

By using such innovative technology–and trust SpaceX to be the company to do so–they are able to fabricate components like the thrusters with extremely strong and durable 3D printing material–at a fraction of the cost, and in much less time. This means saying goodbye to traditional machining methods, and setting themselves apart from companies like Boeing, as they dream up new ways to protect the crew, eschewing the usual rocket tower design and instead opting for SuperDracos, which are built into the side of the crew’s capsule.

Now, SpaceX has officially finished development testing of the four pairs of SuperDracos, at their McGregor, Texas facility. They report 27 test fires and evaluations with various cycles. Considering this is the system that would be used to save people on board in space, SpaceX–and NASA–are of course taking no chances and have been working on the design and refinements of these components and engines diligently.

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SpaceX’s SuperDraco engine testing in Texas [Photo credit: NASA, SpaceX]

Power and safety are obviously the key in carrying the astronauts on board, traveling to the ISS for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. These thrusters could be the difference between life and death upon launch or in space, able to get humans to safety–and fast. In a launch in combination with the SpaceX Falcon 9, that is currently the sole purpose of the thrusters, although this may be expanded later to eliminate parachute landings.

We watched earlier this year as SpaceX sent the Dragon Crew spacecraft up to 5,000 feet during a Pad Abort Test carrying a dummy named Buster and cinder blocks in lieu of other estimated and eventual passenger weight.

Those previous results were successful and confirmed flight capability and readiness as they tested for temperatures, vibration, sound, acceleration–and the capsule separated, deployed parachutes, and landed in the ocean. With the latest round of tests, it would certainly seem that the 3D printed thrusters will be in fine shape for their trip to space, ultimately.

If one wasn’t already impressed by the countless spectacular innovations being created with 3D printing, the SuperDracos, capable of producing over 120,000 pounds of axial thrust, allowing for landing and saving of lives should there be an emergency during launch, should offer some pretty magnificent evidence of exactly how the technology is making some vast contributions–along with those who come up with the concepts to use it in making the leap–or in this case, the launch.

Where will 3D printing take space travel next?  Let’s hear your thoughts in the SpaceX 3D Printing forum thread on 3DPB.com.

[Source: NASA]
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The Crew Dragon Pad Abort Test, earlier this year [photo credit: SpaceX]

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