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NASA tests 3-D printed rocket part at Alabama’s Marshall Space Flight Center

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — NASA‘s largest 3-D printed rocket engine component generated a record 20,000 pounds of thrust during a test at Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center, which has long played a vital role in the U.S. space program.

According to the space agency, the Aug. 22 test in Alabama represented a “milestone” for reducing the cost of space hardware. The component tested during the engine firing was an injector, which delivers propellants to power an engine and provide the thrust necessary to send rockets to space.

During the test, liquid oxygen and gaseous hydrogen passed through the injector into a combustion chamber, creating 10 times more thrust than previously 3-D printed injectors. According to early data, the injector worked flawlessly with pressures of up to 1,400 pounds per square inch and at almost 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Additive manufacturing, as 3-D printing is also called, costs less in large part by reducing the number of components in manufactured goods. The recently tested injector, manufactured using a technique called selective laser melting, has only two parts, compared to similar injectors that had 115 parts.

“This successful test of a 3-D printed rocket injector brings NASA significantly closer to proving this innovative technology can be used to reduce the cost of flight hardware,” said Chris Singer, the director of the Engineering Directorate at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

An earlier test with a smaller injector was manufactured with a 3-D printer at Marshall Space Flight Center, but the most recent one —  while designed and tested in Alabama — was manufactured by Directed Manufacturing Inc. in Austin, Texas. The 3-D printed part was thousands of dollars cheaper than previous manufacturing methods.

“This entire effort helped us learn what it takes to build larger 3-D parts — from design, to manufacturing, to testing,” Greg Barnett, the project’s lead engineer, said. “This technology can be applied to any of SLS’s engines, or to rocket components being built by private industry.”

The Space Launch System, or SLS, under development at Marshall with help from Boeing Co. and other aerospace companies, is being designed to carry humans deeper into space than ever before. NASA’s most powerful rocket could one day carry man to an asteroid or to Mars. Read a story about the project.

The Marshall Space Flight Center is a crown jewel in Alabama’s robust aerospace industry, which includes more than 300 companies employing about 83,000 people. Huntsville is considered the cradle of the nation’s rocket program, and the first U.S. ballistic missile was developed at Redstone Arsenal, where Marshall is located. Marshall designed and developed the Saturn V, the rocket that launched Apollo 11 to the moon, and manages scientific experiments taking place on the International Space Station.





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