3-D printed rocket engines could make space travel cheaper

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Even if 3-D printing doesn’t change the economy, it has the potential to change manufacturing—making it cheaper and capable of producing better parts and products.

Now the NASA space agency and Aerojet Rocketdyne say they have successfully tested a rocket engine injector that was made using powerful lasers to “melt and fuse fine metallic powders into three-dimensional structures”—read, 3-D printing. Here’s what the test looks like in action:

Liquid oxygen/gaseous hydrogen rocket injector assembly built using additive manufacturing technology is hot-fire tested at NASA Glenn Research Center’s Rocket Combustion Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio.
Image: NASA

According to the engineers behind the project, the test results matter because, unlike a lot of the basic structures created by 3-D printing, the components inside rocket engines must be machined to extremely exacting standards. If they can withstand the heat and pressure of burning rocket fuel while maintaining high performance, it’s a sign that the techniques behind 3-D printing can have major applications in all kinds of machining scenarios.

The best part, though, is that the new method cuts production time from one year to less than four months, and cuts costs by 70%. The injector is one of the most expensive parts of rocket engines. Reducing its cost through 3-D printing could help make space travel—and other pursuits dependent on costly, hard-to-make parts—a lot more viable.

The maturation of “additive manufacturing” is already generating benefits in similar sectors. CFM International, a major producer of commercial airline engines, uses 3-D printed components to improve the efficiency of its jet engines by as much as 15%.

(The video above isn’t of today’s test, but of a 2009 rocket motor demonstration that should give you an idea of the stresses these kinds of components undergo.)