NASA has named the nine US companies, including Lockheed Martin Corp, that will compete for funding under the space agency’s renewed long-term moon program, the Nasa Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS). It is a $2.6 billion private-public undertaking to develop technology that will explore the lunar surface. Compared to the first “moon race” of the 60’s, advanced manufacturing technologies – and in particular additive manufacturing – are making it more cost effective to develop and deploy space systems. So much so that startups and private companies can play a major role. We recently spoke with Masten Space Systems, one of the private companies selected for the CLPS, and learned how they – and their partner Elementum 3D – are using AM to go where no private company has gone before.
Masten Space Systems’ business model is based on commercial contracts to deliver payloads to the lunar surface over the next 10 years, thus paving the way for continued exploration of the Moon and the solar system beyond. Since its inception in 2004, Masten’s team has been working to prepare for a lunar mission and for over a decade, Masten has been a leader in rocket-powered terrestrial flight.
From prototypes to the moon
“We, of course, use plastic processes for prototyping and fixtures, including both FDM and SLA depending on the needs,” says Matthew Kuhns, Masten Space Systems Chief Engineer. “We also use metal AM with the DMLS process, with build volumes as large as we can find, for the higher thrust engines such as the 25,000 lbf Broadsword. Much of the direct metal production is carried out through Elementum 3D, an additive manufacturing research and development company that specializes in the creation of advanced metals, composites, and ceramics.
In 2009 Masten won the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge and continued to set records for rocket system reusability and autonomy. Over the last 5 years, the company has been working closely with NASA on the Lunar CATALYST (Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown) program to further mature their approach to lander development and to position to execute a lunar mission. Through the NASA Lunar CATALYST initiative, NASA had competitively selected three partners in 2014 to spur commercial cargo transportation capabilities to the surface of the Moon. The no-funds-exchanged Space Act Agreement (SAA) partnerships with Masten Space Systems, as well Astrobotic Technology and Moon Express Inc (all of which were also selected for the new program), aimed to start development of capabilities that could lead to a commercial robotic spacecraft landing on the Moon, and also potentially enable new science and exploration missions of interest to NASA and to broader scientific and academic communities. They also could address emerging private sector demand to conduct activities on the Moon.
New geometries for space vehicles
“Masten and Elementum 3D are working together to mature the patent-pending PermiAM process together under a NASA SBIR contract,” Kuhns continued. “This enables manufacturing of complex porous geometries in situ with fully dense material, enabling improved cooling and reduced manufacturing costs for rocket engine injectors and chambers.”
Masten’s first lunar vehicle is the XL-1, a spacecraft featuring 2 payload bays and the capacity to deliver 100kg of payload to the lunar surface. The spacecraft will be put on a translunar injection by a larger launch vehicle, and once in lunar orbit, will fire its 4 main engines to slow down and autonomously descend into a soft touchdown at a predetermined location on the lunar surface. “Flight hardware will use AM for propulsion components as they represent the best cost/benefit ratio due to their complexity, Kuhns went on to explain. “These include chamber and injectors, as well as electric pump components for our larger lander projects such as XL-2 & XEUS”.
Preliminary lunar missions will be designed to answer questions from the global science community and to develop infrastructure that will contribute to a sustainable lunar presence. Masten plans to continue driving an enduring and eventually vibrant lunar economy by accommodating the delivery of a variety of payload types that will perform critical and diverse lunar missions.
Matt explained to 3dpbm that NASA, especially the engineers at Marshall Spaceflight Center, has been an excellent resource, as his company works to increase the maturity of AM rocket components through their assistance on programs such as 25k Broadsword Tipping Point, Electric Pump CAN, PermiAM SBIR and Lunar CATALYST.
While ventures such as Masten Space Systems are privately owned, NASA is supporting them and helping them advance their work by sharing its own research. For example through the AMDE (Additive Manufacturing Demonstrator Engine) program. “It [the NASA ADME engine] is an amazing program,” Kuhns confirmed. “the work they are doing is benefiting the entire industry. The AMDE program is an excellent example of how AM can dramatically reduce the cost of development for space components.”
The table above offers some comparable cost data. For example, the entire development of the engine within the AMDE program would cost just $1-5 million compared to $20-50 billion using the current state of the art technology. This is a 10 to 20 fold reduction. Dramatic reduction in the part count would lower the number of welds required from over 100 to just 30, development lead times could be cut from 7-10 years to 2-4 years. This is the promise of AM for space and these are the reasons why space travel can become a viable commercial business.
“The benefits of AM to the rocket industry include massive reductions in component lead time and cost,” Matt confirmed. “AM also enables complex geometries and design improvements not possible with traditional manufacturing. An example of this is the work we performed on the 25k Broadsword NASA Tipping Point program which used High Powered Computing (HPC) to generate improved cooling geometries for rocket engines.”
Taking the next giant leap
Masten’s next engineering steps include final integration and flight testing of XL-1T, the terrestrial demonstrator vehicle, which serves as a technology precursor for their lunar design. The lunar variant, XL-1, is entering detailed design with a plan to launch by the end of 2021. “We are currently maturing our XL-1 lunar lander engine, which uses our green hypergol MXP-351. Having the engine ready for flight in time for the moon missions would be much more difficult and expensive without additive manufacturing,” Kuhns concluded.
As soon as 2022, NASA expects to begin construction on a new space station laboratory that will orbit the moon and act as a pit stop for missions to deeper parts of our solar system, such as Mars. “When we go to the moon, we want to be one customer of many customers in a robust marketplace between the earth and the moon,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said.
Lockheed Martin is also working on a Lunar Lander module. Although the lander is still in the design concept phase, Lockheed Martin confirmed to 3dpbm that it will be based on the incredibly successful InSight Mars lander, which had titanium 3D printed brackets on it.
The new era for Space exploration is within reach and it seems clear that AM is going to play a major role in making this new, commercial space race a reality and a real business.