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Charles Bolden, NASA administrator, joined by Patrick Scheuermann, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center director, Frank Ledbetter, chief of nonmetallic materials and manufacturing division at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, and Andy Hardin, NASA's Space Launch System subsystem manager for liquid engines. NASA is  using a high-tech 3D printing process, called selective laser melting, to create intricate metal parts for America's next heavy-lift rocket.  Bolden toured MSFC's National Center for Advanced Manufacturing Rapid Prototyping Facility on Friday, Feb. 22 where he saw this technology first hand. Photo Credit: NASA.

Charles Bolden, NASA administrator, touring the National Center for Advanced Manufacturing Rapid Prototyping Facility (at Marshall Space Flight Center), joined by Patrick Scheuermann, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center director, Frank Ledbetter, chief of nonmetallic materials and manufacturing division at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, and Andy Hardin, NASA’s Space Launch System subsystem manager for liquid engines. Photo Credit: NASA.

It’s not every day that the leader of the free world sings the praises of 3D printing technology. The mainstream media has paid extra attention to additive manufacturing since the President gave his State of the Union address.  In his speech, he explicitly singled out 3D printing as having “the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.”  Of course, MAKE readers have known this for awhile, but it’s nice to know that the government is finally talking openly about it.

Whenever the President speaks, of course, nobody is paying more attention than his executive staff who run the various federal agencies, including NASA. NASA and its contractors have been leaders in manufacturing since the days of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. To better facilitate the development of new advanced technologies for flying to, living, and working in space, a new Space Technology Directorate has been created. Among the goals of this new NASA organization are to develop programs that enhance NASA’s advanced manufacturing abilities. To showcase NASA’s new initiatives, on Friday, Feb. 22, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden toured the National Center for Advanced Manufacturing Rapid Prototyping Facility at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Al.

The highlights of this tour were the advanced manufacturing technologies being applied toward construction of the Space Launch System, NASA’s next generation rocket vehicle. During his tour, Bolden viewed firsthand examples of 3D printed steel and titanium rocket parts, including components fabricated with selective laser melting, using the Concept Laser M2 LaserCUSING device.

Afterwards, Administrator Bolden took time to speak to the media, including 10 minutes with MAKE.  The following is a summarized transcript of our conversation.

Matthew F. Reyes: Hello General Bolden. I speaking with you today as a writer for MAKE magazine, but I am also one of your subcontractors at NASA Ames Research Center.

Administrator Charlie Bolden: Great! I am very much aware of the maker community and am glad to speak with you.

MFR: Given recent news of the creation of the NASA Space Technology Directorate, do you see opportunity for new programs within NASA that may better engage the do-it-yourself maker community of students and other highly technically-capable creative types wanting to build flight hardware?

CB: The space technology mission directorate was created to support the creation of space technology in support of the other organizations in NASA such as the Science Missions and Human Spaceflight Directorates. It was created to develop technology that we need for SLS and for other missions across the agency. That said, NASA is not in the job of starting companies, but to actively help small businesses access and use our space technology through our small business initiatives such as the SBIR/STTR programs.

MFR: Many members of the maker community are highly technically skilled, but are often under-employed or even unemployed. Take for instance NASA’s old shuttle workforce: these experts could be a major contributor to the maker community as well. Do you see future opportunities to retrain these people to work with makers in developing flight hardware?”

CB: NASA is working on workforce retraining programs, for instance, some space shuttle machinist are now being retrained to work on software design, new kinds of controls systems,  or other work that they may be interested in learning. In fact, we are going to each NASA Center to look at their special expertise and what they do best in support of retraining the workforce.

Each Center has its own specialty; for instance, the advanced manufacturing work here at Marshall. Also you should talk to Pete Worden at Ames and you’ll see how wildly excited all of the high school and college students get while working on small satellites. The same can be said for Johnson Space Center and their active robotics development projects.”

MR: “Given your flight experience in microgravity and NASA’s growing additive manufacturing capabilities, what can you imagine this technology can do in orbit? What could MAKE readers voluntarily design and contribute with 3D printing to provide something useful for astronauts in space?”

CB: In my day, as an astronaut, it was more like a camping trip, we had everything that we needed in space with us and we were trained different. My personal experiences are different from today’s astronauts. They are really living in space. They are always needing to service and repair things such as plumbing and cooling systems. Plenty of things break that a 3D printer could be used in repair.

At NASA Marshall and Ames, we are working on putting 3D printing machines on the International Space Station with a group called Made In Space. Made in Space is developing 3D printer and other additive manufacturing technologies to operate in microgravity. I suggest that Ames and Marshall continue to collaborate with Made in Space to further develop these 3D printing capabilities”

MFR: Thank you, General Bolden! Before you go, my father says: ‘Semper FI Marine!’

CB: Wow! Semper Fi back 

In an upcoming article, I will delve deeper into NASA’s collaborations with Made in Space as well as how NASA, SpaceX, and others are using 3D printing for rocket engine parts.

Matthew F. Reyes

Founder of Exploration Solutions, Inc, distributor of the future in research, education & technology projects. Matthew supports NASA Ames Research Center and others in Silicon Valley as an independent contractor. Matthew is an occasional contributor to Make Magazine and a guest editor for #DIYSpaceWeek


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