Forging the Future: Why Multi-Material Manufacturing will be the Key to Long-Duration Spaceflight Missions

The next era in human spaceflight has begun as NASA and commercial companies look to travel beyond low Earth Orbit (LEO). NASA’s Artemis program, a multi-phase exploration plan that charts a path from the Moon to Mars, looks to leverage the agency’s largest rocket plus innovative technology from the private sector to accomplish its objectives. These ambitious space exploration missions will require advanced contingency planning that can’t rely on the safety net that low Earth orbit offers for resupply. The technology capabilities associated with deep space exploration will need to economize cargo mass while being adaptable to mitigate risks that may arise during the voyage as well as supporting surface operations. 

Astronauts working on the Moon as part of Artemis program. NASA

As we move beyond LEO, on-demand local manufacturing technology will become a mainstay for mission planning to address this critical need. Made In Space (MIS), in partnership with NASA, has demonstrated the power of additive manufacturing to support exploration needs on the International Space Station (ISS) over the past six years. But the critical needs presented by Artemis demand more advanced multi-material manufacturing capabilities that can support intra-vehicular and extravehicular activities. Long-duration spaceflight missions will be made safer and more capable via on-demand manufacturing capabilities that provide solutions for fabrication and repair of components, electronics, tools, and structures.  

Anticipating these emergent needs, MIS has developed new space manufacturing methods and technologies, leveraging valuable spaceflight heritage from the company’s payload portfolio on the ISS. These capabilities include: metals manufacturing, recycling, self-repairability, and in situ resource utilization (ISRU). Paired with advanced transportation systems, these new methods and technologies will be critical components of the infrastructure required to support the next era in human spaceflight. 

Metals Manufacturing is a Key Enabler

Traditionally, NASA has mitigated risk by packing a plethora of contingency parts into its spacecraft. Deep space exploration will mean stricter mass budgets with less contingency items packed for the mission. Future explorers will need adaptable resources capable of producing tools and parts with a variety of materials such as metals, polymers, and combinations of materials. Polymer-based additive manufacturing has demonstrated tangible value on ISS. Materials like metal will also be invaluable to address needs and make missions safer.  

MIS has developed its Vulcan Advanced Hybrid Manufacturing (VULCAN) system which is designed to meet an extensive list of mission requirements for precise additive manufacturing, subtractive manufacturing, metal casting, and drilling applications with multiple materials. VULCAN is a modular hybrid metal manufacturing system capable of autonomously manufacturing, finishing, inspecting, and assembling objects and tools. With support from NASA, MIS has advanced this capability significantly in the past three years. VULCAN system development continues today via a Phase 2 NASA SBIR. 

Building on flight heritage from MIS’s Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF), VULCAN can exchange different manufacturing and machining tools on-demand and be upgraded over time to meet additional NASA and commercial spaceflight needs.

The NASA logo made in Aluminum by the VULCAN manufacturing system during testing and development.

VULCAN, like other MIS technologies, prioritizes operational safety. The technology, while robust, minimizes safety hazards through its innovative design. VULCAN’s welding-based additive manufacturing approach produces quality metal parts without the risks associated with powder-based or directed energy techniques. Energy consumption is low compared to other techniques, and the explosion risk from the presence of metal powder is eliminated. Using various extruder heads with both metal and polymer filaments, VULCAN employs a 5-axis machining platform to manufacture complex geometries with superior tolerances and surface finish. Inclusion of an inspection system enables the creation and verification of aerospace-grade metal, high-grade polymers, or hybrid parts in a streamlined, automated process.

Risk Mitigation through Electronics Printing and Self-Repairability

While manufacturing equipment for polymer and metal materials allow for specific responses to unexpected issues, electronic manufacturing is needed to enable a comprehensive risk mitigation strategy for part failure.

According to a study from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 29.6% of parts that need to be replaced on the ISS are electronic (Cases for Additive Manufacturing on the International Space Station, 2012), indicating that electronics manufacturing and repair provides significant value for deep space missions. This utility extends beyond the ISS and cislunar exploration infrastructure by providing astronauts with another avenue to solve complex issues or develop new scientific equipment and tools. Electronics manufacturing will enable safer future exploration and is extensible to satellite servicing missions to repair, replace, and upgrade electronics without direct resupply from terrestrial sources. 

NASA astronauts Jessica Meir (left) and Christina Koch at the robotics workstation on ISS. NASA

MIS has been able to integrate different technology subsystems from multiple flight heritage payloads and successful parabolic flight units to create a flight-ready manufacturing system. Using proven microgravity 3D printing technology enables the printing of electronic components like interconnects, traces, and passive components directly into the substrate. The combination of functional microgravity manufacturing elements in the system enable the in situ and on-demand fabrication of functional electronic devices, such as wireless transmitters, antenna control boards, boards for displays and crew interfaces and electronic switches.

Electrical Trace Production Subsystem – directly depositing liquid conductive inks into trace paths embedded within the substrate, connecting components.

As the length of spaceflight missions are increased, the risks of errors or faults occurring in onboard equipment compounds. This system would enable future exploration and satellite servicing missions to repair, replace, and upgrade electronics with errors or faults without pre-assembled spares or direct supply from terrestrial sources. 

In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU)

A key phase of NASA’s Artemis plan is creating lunar infrastructure for future exploration missions to the surface. New technologies must harvest and rely on available raw materials for manufacturing and construction. Building lunar infrastructure will depend on local manufacturing.  

Infographic showing the evolution of lunar activities on the surface of the Moon and in orbit. NASA

Launching raw material to the surface of the Moon is extremely cost prohibitive and unnecessary. There is an abundance of resources on the lunar surface that can be used for construction activities. Advancements in additive manufacturing will make it possible to use regolith harvested on the Moon and Mars to construct habitation elements on extraterrestrial surfaces.

NASA has made significant investments to advance ISRU capabilities and is accelerating that progress through focused forums like the Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative (LSII) to better inform the Artemis roadmap. The development of ISRU manufacturing and construction technologies will enable critical surface infrastructure such as stable foundations, habitats, hangars, barriers, support structures, and even launch pads. The ultimate goal is for humans to live and work sustainably off-Earth and be self-sufficient by utilizing the present resources with adaptable systems. 

MIS is developing a suite of essential manufacturing tools and testing critical subsystems for the lunar surface to illuminate a path towards the construction of permanent human presence outside of Earth. Regolith printing combines proven MIS techniques for additive manufacturing in low gravity and vacuum environments. This process of local resource utilization significantly reduces the total mass transported from the Earth when establishing surface infrastructure on the Moon.

Developing Enabling Technologies 

VULCAN and related technologies are proven systems that can be upgraded to address and mitigate future risks/needs. While valuable on their own, these systems can also work together in one integrated system, providing additional value and maximized capability. The integration of multiple enabling fabrication technologies is imperative as the transition from the ISS to Gateway takes place and continues further from the Moon to Mars.

Metal and electronics manufacturing, along with regolith printing, address the coming needs for increased resiliency and ISRU Artemis will present in the next few years. By leveraging its existing investment in the development of these technologies, NASA will deliver on its technology investment for Artemis, mitigating risks and preparing for future mission needs.