3D Printing Will Power the New Space Race


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Whereas the last space race was powered by ideology and meant to declare the superiority of one economic system over the other; this one is powered by 3D printing and will pit firms against one another for untold riches. The opportunities for satellite networks, planetary colonization, in-space manufacturing, mining, and space tourism seem incredible. Incredibly optimistic, most of all.

Personally, space exploration and travel seems fantastic to me. The business models and long term profitability of these businesses seem even more tenuous. Yes, the opportunities are huge but if we look at investments in space the generally come from communications companies through television internet and phone communications, science projects such as ISS and defense. With the space companies themselves venturing into satellite networks it seems likely that there will be a few integrated satellite, TV, movies and music alliances that will win big, and a lot of losers. Science seems to be under threat in our modern world so I don’t see huge ISS-like projects getting started now unless they are prestige projects being done by China. This leaves investor optimism or defense spending to underpin the new space race. If we look at investments in space, launch vehicles, launch assignments and infrastructure; the space race really starts to look like a defense business with the occasional smiling space tourist. If investor optimism is available for the long term then this may make the new space race a reality. Barring this most of the money seems to be emanating from the defense community specifically parts of the US government such as the NRO and DOD.

Boeing’s reusable space plane demonstrator the X37 could function as a reusable satellite. This would be bad for dragons.

Beneath the PR space race with Virgin and SpaceX, there is jockeying for temporary satellites and new kinds of taskable satellites, offensive space systems and perhaps even systems capable of disruption or targeting of ground targets. At the same time, space junk risk and a constant need to replace satellite systems props up demand for launches, vehicles, and programs. Another way to describe the current space race is a desire by the broader US defense establishment to diversify its supplier base away from a select few companies to many more. Elon is not in the driving seat. Some committee at the NRO is. Rather than an ever-expanding universe of opportunities, therefore, I see the current space race as a defense business. These types of businesses are often very dependent on government initiatives and grand plans (Star Wars, the Moon in ten years, Total Information Awareness). Government spending strategies and procurement will further muddy the waters. With the US exhibiting greater arbitrary decisionmaking over the past years this may be a path fraught with difficulty. Also currently other countries are bit players in the funding of new space initiatives so this is a race with fewer competitors than it could have.

United Launch Alliance poster commemorating the NRO’s first launch of 2019 the NROL71.

If we see the US government as laying the groundwork for the New Space Race everything makes more sense. Sandia and ORNL labs have been commercializing 3D printing technologies for many years now. Many of the Directed Energy Deposition, Laser cladding, EBM initiatives got huge boosts from the shuttle program. Later 3D variants of these processes were commercialized by the same national labs. Under the radar, many billions have gone to funding materials, processes, machines, and technologies for a spy satellite race that has been a bit of a solo challenge with the US racing to beat its personal best. Space for the US was never about Tang or photo ops but a real effort to dominate the final high ground, the area around our planet. The NRO has a budget of over $15 billion while the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) has a budget of over $5 billion.  These agencies you’ve never heard of are the main architects of the current space race. The NRO is the US agency tasked with designing and building US spy satellites while the NGA collects and interprets geospatial intelligence. Additionally, there is an extra DOD budget, more black intelligence budgets, and room for inventing fundamental technology and new manufacturing technologies to underpin these developments. Yes, other companies have space programs but the extent of the US’ investment in the technologies for future space exploration and in specifically developing dozens of new 3D printing technologies put them in the driving seat. 

A large scale EBM system at NASA.

In the middle between them and publicly available information and technology sits NASA. NASA has been working tirelessly to bring EBM to in-space manufacturing for years now. Many tests and NASA programs have worked out the technology kinks of 3D printing in space. A lot of attention goes to the MARS habitat challenge but NASA has done so much more. Currently, it is helping to develop bioprinting, circuit printing, plastics recycling, metal printing, polymer printing, printing of rocket engines, new 3D printing metals, magnetic 3D printing, printing of large scale space components in space and much more. If one single organization is responsible for the current 3D printed space race then it is NASA.   

Important work by NASA on the baby bantam and other rocket propulsion systems spread knowledge on the advantages of 3D printing for spacecraft, especially in propulsion. NASA showed that reducing part count works through 3D printing. NASA showed us that you could get significant weight savings through metal 3D printed propulsion units. NASA also showed us how 3D printed propulsion systems could be developed at lower cost and faster through 3D Printing.

A NASA and Virgin Orbit 3D printed combustion chamber test.

Due to NASA sharing their knowledge and findings it became public knowledge in the space community that 3D Printing was the best technology to make new rocket engines out of. With 3D Printing, you could cut development times in half, at the same time you could reduce costs by 40% or more. With the same process and technology, you could then reduce part count. In some cases, you could go from 80 parts to 3. This reduces your mold and tooling costs and means you have fewer parts to keep and keep on making as you go forward. The same development lets you iterate more quickly. Based on testing you can now make more parts and try more parts and do this more quickly. Also, at the same time, you can save weight which is supremely important in space exploration. It is NASA that time and time showed everyone that the built parts could be on par with or outperform conventionally manufactured parts.

Through sharing data NASA clued on a new generation of space companies to 3D printing. In propulsion, all of the major players are using metal 3D printing to create and power the next generation of spacecraft. 3D Printed propulsion systems are less expensive, quicker to make and lighter than previous propulsion systems. Through more iterations and weight-saving, it will be 3D printing that will power the new space race and push humanity further for a select few. 

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