NASA is preparing to explore the final frontier with the most powerful rocket it’s ever built, set to launch in late 2019. The Space Launch System aims to usher in a new era of space exploration, taking astronauts into the deep space gateway—the area near the moon—and far beyond to Mars. However, the desire to go deeper into space also brings unpredictability; astronauts must be equipped for the unknown, and NASA has tapped Greenville-based Techshot, Inc. to give astronauts a single piece of machinery that could build just about anything.
Techshot is one of three companies competing to build NASA a prototype “FabLab,” a multi-material fabrication lab. Techshot’s strategy is to create a 3D printer that could make objects—in space—using plastic, metal, ceramics and electronics.
“The deep space gateway would [have astronauts] orbiting the moon, which is 240,000 miles from the Earth. It’s two to three days travel from the Earth; you really have to be more self-sufficient than even on board the International Space Station, which is only 240 miles above the surface of the Earth,” says Techshot Vice President of Corporate Advancement Rich Boling. “NASA wants to be able to respond to any situation that may arise; say a tool breaks or a part of the space station in the deep space gateway needs to be repaired. They don’t want to wait weeks or months for somebody to develop something, build it and ship it out to lunar orbit.”
The project is the result of a $10 million contract NASA is dividing among the three companies. Boling says Techshot’s FabLab prototype will be the largest piece of hardware—about the size of a refrigerator—the company has ever built for space.
“Everything that we do for space has to be so efficient in terms of how it uses its power and how it takes up physical space,” says Boling. “But we’ve had nearly 30 years of practice and refinement for our techniques and capabilities for making a lot of things happen in a small amount of space, so we’re pretty confident.”
The most challenging aspect of the project is 3D printing metal in space—specifically, metal that is strong enough to withstand many applications, such as aluminum or titanium. Boling describes it as “exceptionally challenging”—no one has 3D printed metal in space yet.
“3D printing metal on the ground happens every day; the leading technologies to do that are lasers hitting beds of titanium powder, which melts the little pieces of powder and turns them into solid metal,” says Boling. “But you can’t have powder beds in space; it just floats everywhere. That’s the really big challenge—how to do that in space. I think we’ve got the right solution.”
The 18-month project will culminate with Techshot and the two other competing companies presenting their FabLab prototypes at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The winning company will test the prototype on board the International Space Station. By then, NASA expects to have a space station orbiting the moon—operated by astronauts, much like the ISS—and the FabLab would be used on board that spaceport.
Boling says the project builds even more momentum for the company, which had a record $7.5 million in sales in 2017; Techshot expects to surpass that number in the first half of 2018.
If NASA chooses Techshot’s FabLab prototype, it would be the company’s first major project with NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems, which validates concepts for future human missions in deep space. While Techshot has long built equipment for the shuttle and ISS in low-Earth orbit, being chosen to supply the FabLab would mark the company’s first time blasting into deep space projects.
“Doing things that have never been done before is our specialty,” says Boling. “Techshot is an innovation engine. Do we make the best bioprinters or the best 3D metal printers in the world? Maybe not, but the ability to tie it all together in a way that’s innovative—low-power and low-volume—that’s our expertise. These tough, first-of-their-kind challenges are where Techshot really shines.”
Boling says NASA needs a fabrication lab in deep space for the “unknown unknowns that can make or break a mission.”
Boling says Techshot’s FabLab can do both additive and subtractive manufacturing.
Boling says a catalog of space hardware Techshot has been “quietly developing” drove record sales numbers in 2017.