Ahead of Historic Demo-2 Astronaut Launch: All SpaceX Has 3D Printed

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Overcrowded virtual launch parties and events will help usher in a new era of spaceflight as people gather today to witness NASA‘s SpaceX Demo-2 test flight. The event is a historic milestone in human spaceflight: the first crewed space mission from American soil since the space shuttle era ended on July 21, 2011. Targeted for liftoff at 4:33 PM ET, this mission will send NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, lifting off on a Falcon 9 rocket, to the International Space Station as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program.

As the final flight test for SpaceX, this mission will validate the company’s crew transportation system, including the launch pad, rocket, spacecraft, and operational capabilities. This will also be the first time NASA astronauts will test the spacecraft systems in orbit; the first time in history astronauts have reached low Earth orbit (LEO) on a commercially built rocket and spacecraft, and the first time in its 18-year history that SpaceX has launched humans into space. Lots of firsts tomorrow that make this occasion a big step in the right direction for both SpaceX and the space industry.

NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley speak to members of the media after arriving at the Launch and Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center ahead of SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission. (Credits: NASA)

With people around the world preparing for this historical launch, which comes at a time when audiences are following stay-at-home guidelines and there are more major news announcements than ever before due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it is a great opportunity to look back at some of SpaceX’s major accomplishments in the field of 3D printing.

“Through 3D printing, robust and high-performing engine parts can be created at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional manufacturing methods,” said Elon Musk, Chief Designer and CEO of SpaceX, back in 2014 during the unveiling of the world’s first fully 3D-printed rocket engine at SpaceX. “SpaceX is pushing the boundaries of what additive manufacturing can do in the twenty-first century, ultimately making our vehicles more efficient, reliable, and robust than ever before.” 

In 2013, Musk described how the company was planning to build parts for its Merlin rocket engines using a Leap Motion controller, the Oculus Rift Virtual Reality headset, and a high-end metal 3D printer.

SpaceX began using 3D printing technology on spaceflight hardware in 2014. In January of that year, the company revealed that it had launched its Falcon 9 rocket with a 3D-printed Main Oxidizer Valve (MOV) body in one of the nine Merlin 1D engines. It was the first time SpaceX had ever flown a 3D-printed part. The valve operated correctly with high-pressure liquid oxygen and was able to withstand high vibration and cryogenic temperatures.

But SpaceX continued to develop other complex engine designs for spacecraft using 3D printing. In 2014, the SuperDraco thruster turned out to be the first fully printed rocket engine to ever see flight, as it went on to power the Dragon spacecraft’s launch escape system to enable the vehicle to land using propulsion on Earth or potentially on any another planet with pinpoint accuracy. At the time, and in order to cut down costs and waste, SpaceX engineers fabricated the combustion chamber of the rocket engine entirely with a direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) machine developed by EOS, using an Inconel superalloy to ensure high performance, mechanical strength and creep resistance at high temperatures. 

The development of both Merlin and SuperDraco engines was crucial to the evolution of the company’s spacecraft. The Falcon 9 rocket set to take Behnken and Hurley to orbit today, is powered by nine Merlin engines that are gradually throttled near the end of the first-stage flight to limit launch vehicle acceleration as the rocket’s mass decreases with the burning of fuel. While the Dragon capsule, which is the pressurized section that will transport the crew, is equipped with Draco thrusters that allow Dragon to maneuver while on orbit, eight SuperDracos are coupled together as a Launch Escape System. This is crucial to the mission, considering that, should a major malfunction be detected, the computer is programmed to instantly fire the SuperDracos, blasting the capsule away from the Falcon 9.

It has been a very successful existence for SpaceX so far, after almost twenty years of developing space hardware, the company has only hit a few bumps along the road. Since June 2010, rockets from the Falcon 9 family have been launched 87 times, with 85 full mission successes, one partial failure, and one total loss of spacecraft. This Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission was originally planned for launch in July of last year, but the Crew Dragon capsule from the Crew Dragon Demo-1 mission was destroyed during static fire testing of its SuperDraco thrusters. Still, the Falcon 9 rocket has officially become the most-flown currently operational US rocket.

Crew Dragon spacecraft (Credits: NASA/SpaceX)

In line with the company’s vanguard and futuristic style, and as it expects its Demo-2 mission to become a historical launch event, SpaceX worked hard to design lightweight, functional, and sleek spacesuits that the astronauts will be wearing today. The agency revealed this month that the spacesuits are custom-made for each passenger aboard Crew Dragon to offer protection from potential depressurization. Moreover, they even include helmets that were custom manufactured using 3D printing technology and include integrated valves, mechanisms for visor retraction and locking, as well as microphones within the helmet’s structure.

SpaceX 3D printed helmets. Image courtesy of SpaceX.

Showing no signs of slowing down and with a focus on scalability and lowering costs, using 3D printing technology, both on Earth and in orbit could become a greater component of SpaceX engineering. Just last month, one of SpaceX’s main 3D printer suppliers, Velo3D, suggested that SpaceX had started using its machines for a specific component that they had very significant issues manufacturing with previous techniques. The company further claimed that the development of some components of the next-generation engines for SpaceX’s starship cruiser to Mars had been difficult to produce and that, over time, SpaceX shifted to Velo3D systems.

Indeed, at this pace, Musk could well be at the forefront of Mars colonization and beyond. After all, he founded SpaceX in hopes of colonizing the red planet. In fact, Musk plans to send a new rocket to Mars, but very little is known about the company’s Starship launch vehicle, which is expected to take cargo to Mars by 2022, with a second mission, which would take more cargo and crew, targeted for 2024. Musk has also said he had plans to send a million people to Mars by 2050.

With so many rocket launches throughout the last two decades and more to come, we can expect SpaceX will continue to captivate space enthusiasts as its technology evolves, and traveling to space becomes a more tangible reality. This Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission is intended to finish the validation process for human-rated spaceflight operations on SpaceX. If successful, the demonstration flight will allow for human-rated certification of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, opening up a new era for the industry.

If the weather cooperates, full mission coverage will air live on NASA Television and the agency’s website, as well as numerous other platforms with pre-launch coverage beginning at 12:15 PM Eastern Time, ahead of the scheduled 4:33 PM liftoff time.

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