NASA’s 3D Printed Rocket Spews Fire with Style

We love 3D printing for many reasons – it makes things cheaper to produce, with an environmentally friendlier process, and it’s also much quicker to complete. Don’t just take our word for it. NASA, arguably the most advanced engineering organisation in the world, agrees.

It takes NASA just a month or two to build all the parts of a rocket engine using 3D printing, rather than traditional fabrication methods which take up to a year. Large-scale 3D printing can also create large yet complex pieces, reducing the number of smaller components required to make up the entire engine.

While these all makes sense, the next question is whether these parts are able to endure the arduous task – space, as we know, is not a kind environment, not even toward inanimate objects, and getting there is a highly strenuous experience. NASA engineers of course put their innovatively manufactured rocket engine to the test and it proved that it was as flashy as it was brawny, producing colossal jets of flame and 9,100kg of thrust using cryogenic liquid hydrogen and oxygen.

In the six tests – one of which lasted for a full 10 seconds – the metal parts had to withstand temperatures between -400°F in the turbopump, which channels the liquid hydrogen in, to 6,000°F when the fuel is at full burn. The 3D printed parts held up without a sweat.

Even the camera shuddered in awe:

Obviously NASA wasn’t using plastic building blocks, but had layered metal powder and then fused it together using selective laser melting.

The success of the tests doesn’t mean that the advanced rocket engine is ready for space travel. The test used a “breadboard engine”,  an enlarged design that gives access to engineers to all of its parts. The “print-outs” need to be shrunk greatly before it can find any practical use on a spacefaring rocket.

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