On March 28, 2022, we learned that the White House is requesting $26 billion for NASA’s budget in 2023, allowing the space agency to sustain America’s global innovation leadership and remain at the forefront of exploration through the Artemis program and several other strategic missions. This time around, the budget proposed a 4.7% increase compared to 2022, and, if approved, it would top the 2021 budget by roughly $2.7 billion.
Even though NASA funding is destined for programs and projects in human spaceflight, space science, aeronautics, technology development, and education, generally, about 50% is spent on human spaceflight activities and 30% on scientific research and robotic missions.
With additive manufacturing (AM) picking up speed in major industries, it’s taking force within NASA as well. This becomes clear if we analyze the detailed budget request summary, which not only highlights several ongoing 3D printing projects from 2021 and 2022 but points out upcoming key achievements planned for 2023 that involve AM.
The past shapes the future
As the only microgravity platform capable of long-term testing technologies needed to expand NASA’s exploration horizons, the International Space Station (ISS) has proven crucial to the evolution of 3D printing technology in space. NASA highlights this in its budget, adding that demonstrations at the orbital facility, like in-space AM, can help scientists identify, develop and test the technologies that astronauts will need during their extended time in space.
As part of NASA’s “Space Operations” activities, the ISS could receive up to $1.3 billion in 2023. This value has not changed much since 2021, though. Instead, it has slightly decreased, possibly due to funding being redirected to other accounts, like “Deep Space Exploration,” led by the highly anticipated Artemis program that plans to return humans to the Moon. However, the plateaued funding to the ISS comes as no surprise since the station has an operating lifetime until 2030 when it will most likely be carefully lowered through the atmosphere and burn at reentry to Earth.
For now, however, the massive orbiting laboratory remains the home of plenty of scientific missions. In fact, NASA highlights one exciting accomplishment in 2021: the Redwire Regolith Print (RRP) study. Launched on August 10, 2021, the technology demonstration mission developed in partnership with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center proved 3D printed on the space station using a material simulating regolith, or loose rock and soil found on the surfaces of planetary bodies such as the Moon was possible.
This not only marks the first time lunar regolith simulant was used for 3D printing in space, but the results could help determine the feasibility of using regolith as the raw material and 3D printing as a technique for on-demand construction of habitats and other structures in future space exploration missions.
In 2022, Techshot (now part of Redwire) will relaunch the first American bioprinter in space, the BioFabrication Facility (BFF), which returned to Earth in 2019 for refinements. Once it’s back in orbit, the BFF will engage in multiple investigations to leverage its capabilities, including projects to bioprint human cardiac muscle tissue and human vascular tissue and a project from the Department of Defense (DoD) to bioprint a partial human meniscus.
Notably, in 2023, plans for the ISS include upcoming investigations in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine to improve human health and longevity and flight projects supported by other Government agencies to explore a range of related topics from stem cell biology to 3D printing.
Another program in NASA’s “Space Operations” account is the Space and Flight Support theme. With a potential budget of $975 million, it will provide essential services to missions sponsored by all of NASA and other stakeholders. For example, according to the agency’s budget request, one of the works in progress includes testing to evaluate advanced 3D printing technologies for liquid rocket engines in landers and on-orbit stages and spacecraft. These rocket propulsion tests will eventually support the Artemis campaign, including for commercial customers and NASA’s internal component-level test requirements.
Space Technologies in 2023
For its “Space Technology” portfolio, NASA is making progress in advancing innovation that supports rapid and efficient in-space transportation that reduces transit times. First, in 2023, the agency plans to begin initial development, trials, and simulations of refractory alloys for additive manufacturing. The initiative is part of the RAAMBO project, short for Refractory Alloy Additive Manufacturing Build Optimization, which will advance the AM use of refractory alloys through an integrated computational materials engineering approach.
Furthermore, in 2023, the robotic spacecraft OSAM-2 (short for On-Orbit Servicing and Manufacturing Demonstration-2 and formerly known as Archinaut One) will prepare for its launch aboard a Falcon 9 rocket no earlier than April. The mission shows how 3D printing can build, assemble and deploy complex structures in space. Once deployed and positioned in orbit, the spacecraft will 3D print two structural beams using robotic manipulation and autonomous operations.
The expectation is that the first beam will extend nearly 33 feet from one side of the spacecraft while deploying a solar array surrogate. In comparison, the second beam will extend nearly 20 feet from the opposite side of the spacecraft.
“This disruptive capability could transform the traditional spacecraft-manufacturing model by enabling in-space creation of large spacecraft systems. No longer will developing, building, and qualifying a spacecraft focus so heavily on an integrated system that must survive launch loads and environments. Archinaut [now OSAM-2] could also greatly reduce cost while increasing capabilities for both NASA and commercial space applications,” states the agency in its budget proposal.
In “Aeronautics,” a segment that could receive up to $971 million, NASA said it plans to fund several 3D printing-related activities. One involves additively manufacturing solid-state batteries for enhanced energy, recharging, and safety. The second project will evaluate an investigation by Carnegie Mellon University researchers for qualifying AM and demonstrating an ecosystem for efficient large-scale production as part of the University Leadership Initiative awards.
Other space technologies, like the RAMPT (short for Rapid Analysis Manufacturing Propulsion Technology), will continue to advance state-of-the-art AM techniques for fabricating liquid rocket engine components. Even though the budget highlights specific AM projects that require funding, countless other space exploration initiatives leverage 3D printing and are helping to expand the portfolio of hardware, materials, and software available to NASA, like other launch services, rocket propulsion, and exploration devices.
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