Huntsville, AL - NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) is using selective laser melting (SLM) to create intricate metal parts for a what it says is America's next heavy-lift rocket, a technique it claims will save millions in manufacturing costs.
The Space Launch System (SLS), a rocket being managed at the Marshall Center, is designed to take people, equipment, and experiments beyond low-Earth orbit to nearby asteroids and eventually Mars. Some parts of the J-2X engine (the upper-stage engine of the ILS) will be 3D-printed using SLM on a Concept Laser M2 Cusing machine ("Cusing" is a mashup of the letter "C" in Concept Laser's name and the word fusing i.e. complete melting).
First test piece produced on the M2 Cusing Machine at the Marshall Center. Pen is included for scale. (Source: NASA/MSFC/Andy Hardin)
"This process significantly reduces the manufacturing time required to produce parts from months to weeks or even days in some cases," stated Andy Hardin, the integration hardware lead for the Engines Office in SLS. "It's a significant improvement in affordability, saving both time and money. Also, since we're not welding parts together, the parts are structurally stronger and more reliable, which creates an overall safer vehicle."
Structural testing and hot-fire tests are slated for later this year; NASA hopes SLM-made parts will be on the first SLS test flight in 2017. Note that this isn't the first time SLM and Concept Laser have done aerospace work; as part of Europe's ALPHA project it was used to create a testable model for a reusable space transport system.
In this video, Hardin and Kevin Cooper from the MSFC describes the technology and process, with a realtime view of the creation of the part.