The astronauts of Apollo 13 had a life-threatening problem to solve. They had to move from the command module to the lunar module, and their carbon dioxide scrubbers—little filters that make the air breathable – weren’t fitting quite right. The circular scrubbers needed to fit in a square space.
On the ground, engineers hurrying to help grabbed things they knew the astronauts had on board—in this case, socks and duct tape—and worked out a solution. The scene was dramatized in the movie “Apollo 13,” but it’s exactly the sort of thing mission control does to this day.
“That really happens,” said Randal Lindner, a Raytheon program director who oversees the company’s operations, maintenance and engineering work at NASA training facilities.
That program includes a team at the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, which hosts full-scale replicas of the International Space Station, the Orion capsule and commercial spacecraft. Now, the center has a modern complement to the old socks-and-duct tape solution: a trio of 3-D printers that churn out fast, cheap and highly accurate models of actual spacecraft parts.
“3-D printers allow us to build parts that might have been prohibitively expensive before,” said Bobby Vincent, who runs Raytheon’s special projects for NASA. “A real part from an original manufacturer may have taken six months and $3,000 to acquire before. Now it’s available on the same day for $30. This capability enables a wider range of practice, trainings and testing ‘what if’ scenarios.”
The printers are part of Raytheon’s companywide push into additive manufacturing and 3-D printing. That includes rocket motors, conductive materials for electrical circuits, housings for the company’s revolutionary gallium nitride transmitters and fins for guided artillery shells.
Duct tape and socks are still in NASA’s toolbox, but the technology to help solve problems for space has advanced.
“We printed 1/20th scale copies of the robotic arm found on the space station,” Vincent said. “The models move at all the same angles as the real thing, which allows astronauts to take them back to their desks to develop procedures for their next spacewalk.”
The vehicle mockups are painstakingly faithful to actual spacecraft, right down to models of science experiments astronauts have conducted on board. The 3-D printers help achieve that authenticity, offering a quick and inexpensive way to ensure the training versions precisely reflect the actual spacecraft. That’s important for the thousands of training exercises that occur every year at the training center, where astronauts practice everything from routine maintenance to handling potentially catastrophic emergencies.
The construction and maintenance of the Orion spacecraft mockup is among 100 special projects Raytheon delivers to NASA and commercial customers at the space center every year. Many of those projects are geared to developing ultra-efficient procedures and preparing both astronauts and mission control to handle whatever happens in space.
“I love turning on the news, seeing something great happening in space and knowing Raytheon had a pivotal role in making it happen,” Lindner said.
The outlook is good for 3-D printers in human spaceflight. The International Space Station itself has a 3-D printer that is already producing usable tools.
On the ground, the 3-D printers at the mockup facility are producing valves, hinges and latches for the Orion spacecraft mockup. Some of the parts are printed in clear plastic to give engineers an unobstructed look at what’s underneath certain components. That, in turn, helps them develop new procedures for servicing both current and future spacecraft.
In the shorter term, the 3-D printers will also help commercial companies making their maiden voyages into space.
“We are starting to see more requests to build mockups for commercial space vehicles,” Vincent said. “The whole space enterprise is rapidly evolving, which is sure to keep our 3-D printers running.”
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