3D printed molds are helping NASA to insulate its newest deep space rocket

NASA engineers are using 3D printing to help insulate vulnerable parts of its new deep space rocket that will take astronauts to the moon in 2024.

Together with engineers from Boeing, they are developing a more efficient way to apply its thermal protection system on to the new rocket, referred to as the Space Launch System (SLS).   

Insulating a deep space rocket 

The standard procedure when insulating the SLS is to use a robotic system to spray insulating foam on both large and small components, this will protect the rocket from heat during launch and keep the propellant within the large tanks cold. However, small hardware or cramped areas like the internal ducts of the engine section require technicians to either manually spray the foam on or apply a foam casting.

A SLS Rocket fuel tank on its way to be fitted into the main body of the rocket. Image via NASA.

To remedy the issue, NASA and Boeing designed, tested and 3D printed a precise mold that corresponds to the space around a given assembly, into which a foam mixture is poured. This foam then takes the shape of the mold and can then be inserted into difficult to reach crevasses. This decreases overall processing time by reducing the need for complex and tedious post-process trimming.

Over the course of development the engineers managed to refine the process – from 3D printing to pour application – reducing the amount of time required to approve  individual 3D printed molds. This allowed the team to spend more time focusing on applying the foam correctly and making sure it’s able to withstand deep space.

A big step for 3D printing  

Boeing is the prime contractor for NASA’s SLS that, in combination with Orion (the capsule carrying the astronauts) will put a human on the moon for the first time since 1972.

“Our backbone for deep space exploration is SLS and Orion, which will launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the Gateway in lunar orbit,” said NASA, “From there, astronauts will ultimately use a proposed human lunar landing system for missions to the surface of the Moon.”

A digital representation of an SLS launch. Image via NASA.

NASA has been a keen adopter of 3D printing and advanced composite technologies. Most recently it awarded a $5.2 million contract to The National Center for Additive Manufacturing Excellence (NCAME) at Auburn University, who will apply its expertise to help improve the performance of liquid rocket engines. NASA has also developed and 3D printed a new copper-based alloy for use in rocket propulsion components, and even plan to bring 3D printed constructions to Mars.

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Featured image shows NASA engineers inspecting foam 3D parts. Image via NASA.