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AerospaceAM for Space

The era of commercial human space flight has begun. What does it mean for AM?

Now the race is on to reduce costs, more than ever before

On May 30th, 2020, SpaceX‘s Crew Dragon took off on top of a Falcon 9 rocket for its second demonstration mission: SpaceX Demo-2, the first with human astronauts on board. The launch took place as scheduled from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

At 3D Printing Media Network we have been following the entire genesis of the Crew Dragon capsule as it was one of the first space projects to disclose the use of additive manufacturing for final, flying parts, specifically its SuperDraco launch escape engines. These are the engines that will bring the human crew to safety in case of a launch failure so let’s hope we won’t have to see them in action. However, the technology powering the SuperDracon engines may also provide a base for future SpaceX landers, including those that will hopefully bring humans to the Moon and Mars.

But before that happens, this test flight with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board the Dragon spacecraft accomplishes a huge milestone by returning human spaceflight to the United States and, for the first time, on privately owned and built rocket and capsule. This means that now anyone can go to space, it’s just a matter of getting the funds.

In preparation for Demo-2, SpaceX completed a number of major milestones for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. In March 2019, SpaceX completed Crew Dragon’s first demonstration mission to and from the International Space Station—an end-to-end test flight of Crew Dragon without NASA astronauts onboard—making Dragon the first American spacecraft to autonomously dock with the International Space Station and safely return to Earth.

In January, SpaceX successfully completed an in-flight test of Crew Dragon’s launch escape capabilities. This test, which did not have NASA astronauts on board the spacecraft, demonstrated Crew Dragon’s ability to reliably carry crew to safety in the unlikely event of an emergency on the ascent. After detaching from the rocket leveraging thrust from the SuperDraco engines, Dragon safely splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, and SpaceX teams successfully recovered the spacecraft onto SpaceX’s recovery vessel.

Space X Demo-2
The Falcon 9 launch vehicle that will support Demo-2 are onsite at SpaceX’s facilities in Florida. To mark the return of human spaceflight on American rockets from American soil, NASA has revived its worm logo for Demo-2.

Demo-2 is the final major test for SpaceX’s human spaceflight system to be certified by NASA for operational crew missions to and from the International Space Station. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is a turning point for America’s future in space exploration that lays the groundwork for future missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

Because Space X is a private company, and because the US is still a very libertarian nation, the only thing limiting more and more people to go to space now is the ability for SpaceX, its partners, and its future (hopefully) competitors, to profit from it.

Buy-to-fly cost over the years and the rockets.

This means that the race is on – even more than ever before – to reduce costs. No manufacturing technology can promise as rapid and significant a weight (and therefore cost) reduction as additive manufacturing, especially on the relatively small part batches required by the space segment.

An entire movement of commercial companies and startups (we will explore most of these in upcoming articles in this month’s AM Focus Aerospace) now exists because of this new paradigm, building and expanding the space economy and making it more seamless and natural to create parts for space. But don’t just take our word for it…

Further down the road, with more people traveling in Space, more and more production will take place in Space as well. Nowhere in the world is the concept of distributed manufacturing more relevant than … outside of it. And no technology can deliver on-location, distributed manufacturing of complex parts more efficiently than additive manufacturing. Getting to orbit, getting through space, and staying in space will only be possible by implementing AM in its various declinations. Exactly how it will happen is the focus of 3dpbm’s Aerospace AM Focus 2020 Aerospace for this entire month. We have lots of great content coming up so stay tuned.

*This article was modified on May 27th to reflect the fact that the launch was moved to May 30th due to weather concerns.

*This article was modified on May 31st to include an analysis of new perspectives for AM in the wake of SpaceX’s successful May 30 launch.

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Davide Sher

Since 2002, Davide has built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, he spent 12 years in the United States, where he completed his studies at SUNY USB. As a journalist covering the tech and videogame industry for over 10 years, he began covering the AM industry in 2013, first as an international journalist and subsequently as a market analyst for leading US-firm SmarTech Analysis, focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets. In 2016 he Co-founded London-based 3dpbm. Today the company publishes the leading news and insights websites 3D Printing Media Network and Replicatore, as well as 3D Printing Business Directory, the largest global directory of companies in the additive manufacturing industry.

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