Restricting 3D Printing to Earth seemingly does not suffice for NASA, who are collaborating with Stratasys, Phoenix Analysis & Design Technologies and Lockheed Martin to use 3D printed parts on NASA’s Orion Spacecraft. It’s first unmanned test flight will launch in December 2019, prompting a manned flight to travels to the vicinity of the moon in the early 2020s.

The manned flight will mark the first manned American lead spacecraft to 3D printed parts; the largest one is a cover on the spacecraft’s docking hatch to shield it from the outside environment. In 2014, the International Space Station got a 3D printer to investigate the practicality of astronauts creating their own tools. NASA also experimented with 3D-printed rocket parts in 2013.

The collaborating firms decided avail themselves Stratasys’s Antero 800NA, a thermoplastic that can withstand high temperatures without melting, or exuding gaseous substances that would damage the spacecraft. Furthermore, it can endure exposure to certain chemicals without breaking or cracking, and resists accumulating an electrical charge that could cause a static shock that could damage electronics.

To see why NASA would use 3D Printing parts over conventional manufacturing, consider that it makes more sense to make a small number of parts via 3D printing over injection moulding, which only pays for itself if something is being manufactured at sufficiently high volumes. Moreover, unlike formative or subtractive manufacturing, 3D printing gives more control over the part’s shape and materials used.

Orion will have 3D printing go where it has never been, pushing the concept and its applications even further.

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