Printing Up A Rocket — By BabelFish


This subject combines 3 of my favorite topics. First, 3-D 'Printing', also known as additive manufacturing. Second, the proliferation of small lift or 'lightweight' commercial rocketry. Third, the repurposing of government owned (public owned) assets into a thriving private business.

On 3-D printing, we need to divest ourselves of the image a simple machine producing miniature plastic Yodas. This technology is rapidly maturing and I believe will be pervasive. Taken to its full potential, the process of creating goods through our current chain (cheap labor, shipping,  further material handling to a retailer, inventory management and then sales) becomes owning the intellectual property and a local efficient way of making it as ordered. Imagine Amazon distribution centers becoming Amazon manufacturing centers. Every piece of clothing you own is bespoke, perhaps 'printed' in your own home.

Of course there are many challenges. Can you invent a durable, affordable electric motor for a blender or mixer or power tool that can be made this way? More than that, what will happen to all the folks working in the many jobs in the traditional chain? I believe this will effect a profound change in society, in our whole civilization. It will not be an instant cataclysm but IMO it will be as profound as the original Industrial Revolution.

I receive weekly email summaries from Ars Technica on rocketry in three categories. In Small Lift, the number of firms and countries that are launching or planning to launch payloads is growing fast, as are the downsized payloads themselves. Relativity Space is just one of these. This is a two for one, both in rocketry and repurposing public facilities.

Relativity has been using 3-D metal printers (metal is the medium) to make rocket parts and now plans to print an entire rocket. They are serious players, as can be seen by the agreements they have with NASA to repurpose a large facility at the Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, MS. I am familiar with Stennis, as it was one of our locations on the Shuttle External Tank program. They have a launch area at Cape Canaveral as well.

Rocket Labs is another promising firm, building components in California and launching from New Zealand. Of note, their Rutherford motor is the first liquid fuel orbital booster to use an electric powered fuel pumping system. The standard since the V-2 has been the turbo pump, in various plumbing arrangements. They have already been to orbit with their Electron launch system.

The list of companies working in this area seems to grow every month. Virgin Galactic will do orbital launches from an airdropped vehicle. The Pegasus rocket is already in this market, having first flown in 1990. Stratolaunch Systems was started by Paul Allen, among others, and Scaled Composites built an enormous airplane mothership for them but the firm has ceased operations following his death.

These are heady times for these firms. Launch startups are potentially slated for locations in Ecuador, the U.K. and Italy. It would appear likely that there will be some consolidation among all these firms some where in the future but right now it appears they are in a true Golden Age for small lift.

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12 Responses to Printing Up A Rocket — By BabelFish

  1. Avatar W Patrick Lang says:

    Great piece!

  2. Avatar Bill Wade says:

    3D printing stocks are now at .05 to .10 cents on the dollar now since the Voice of Wall Street, President Obama, was touting them at their highs. Can only go up from here methinks. The future is bright.

  3. Avatar Fred says:

    Interesting piece. Can you get connecting rod for a ’65 289? What’s the cost and how do they perform compared to forged and machined parts? How about bi-metal parts like thermostats? I asked those questions when I was still in automotive and got blank looks from the MIT PHDs who just wanted to run the math calculations to determine what to build. C’est la vie. Lots of money but not too much strategic thought from my part of the world, though it is good to see ongoing real world applications. I find it interesting you mention small electric motors as a possibility of something that can be 3D printed. If you can make that work then your spare parts inventory on that spaceship to Mars is going to include a couple of 3D printers and a lot of raw material.

  4. Avatar BabelFish says:

    Fred, I repaired small appliances (blenders, shavers, etc) in college. Really familiar with the little gremlins.
    Yah, there is a lot of inertia in our current system. A lot of vested interests will fight this change. Right on about a printer on a trip to Mars and when they get there. There is one on the ISS. The various depots in aviation are also beginning to use them. I’m thinking you would have associated processes like heat treat or shot peening to go with the part build.
    One day I will have to write up the story of BabelFish, the color blind appliance repair dude, trying to wire up an 18 speed Oster blender. Got it done but didn’t realize I had the brush leads backwards.

  5. Avatar Fred says:

    I recall my brother working on dirt back back in the day. Somehow he managed to get gearing 180 degrees off. The only motorcycle I’ve ever seen with reverse!

  6. Avatar Lloyd D. Herod, Jr. says:

    I spent one summer while in college working on a rock crusher and asphalt plant. Part of the summer was following around a color blind electrician to check for the proper color connections. We were working with 440 volts which made it necessary to pay a bit more attention. The reason I was hired was the year before the electrician had wired the asphalt plant where ground was hot… Damn near killed the operator the first time he started up the ladder. Really burnt his hands and feet. I wondered about asking for hazardous duty pay.

  7. 3D printing sounds like a natural progression from older machining technologies. I see a basic similarity between the Swiss Precision and Brown & Sharpe screw machines I operated before college. The skilled machinists with his micrometer adjusting the cutting tools and cams produced by the toolmaker is largely replaced by CAD/CAM, but the tool maker is still there as far as I know. Somebody builds those printing machines.

  8. Avatar BabelFish says:

    TTG, the ultimate end would be machines building machines. A lot of literature around that.
    I was the HR Director for a very large plant with over many screw machines, CNC Swiss and a state of the art plating facility. We had a complete grinding/tooling department as well.

  9. Avatar Linda says:

    Wow! Interesting ideas. Perhaps you could continue posting about this

  10. Avatar BabelFish says:

    Linda, thank you! I certainly do want to continue.

  11. Avatar AltiusSpace says:

    The CEO of Relativity (Tim Ellis) was an intern at my last startup, Masten Space Systems back in 2010. He’s done an impressive job at raising money and building a team. I’m not fully convinced that 3d printing a whole rocket is really the right strategy, but he should have some pretty useful tech come out of that.

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