The concept of a space taxi is just something I find delightful, and the fact that it’s in the process of becoming a real thing rather than a fun idea from a Douglas Adams novel makes me incredibly happy. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to hitch a ride on a space taxi, given that Boeing is developing their CST-100 Starliner passenger capsules initially to take NASA astronauts to and from the space station – and if and when they open up to civilians, I expect a seat will cost in the thousands of dollars at the very least (to say nothing of the tip). Still, it’s delightful.
The fact that the Starliner capsules are being partially 3D printed just makes the whole program more exciting. Last month, Boeing awarded a contract to Oxford Performance Materials (OPM) to supply 3D printed components for the three Starliner capsules, which are being built under a $4.2 billion NASA contract. (SpaceX is also competing to build their own space taxis, with a $2.6 billion NASA contract.) It was the latest in a series of big achievements for OPM, which received a $15 million strategic investment from advanced materials manufacturer Hexcel Corporation last June. Now, Hexcel has added to their investment with an additional $10 million, lifting their equity stake to 16.1 percent.
The additional investment is undoubtedly welcome news for OPM, which is 3D printing about 600 parts for the Starliner capsules. Notably, the parts are all being printed in plastic rather than metal, which shows how far plastic 3D printing materials have come – not long ago, it would be unbelievable for plastic parts to be able to survive the harsh temperatures and stress of launching into space. OPM’s PEKK-based materials, however, aren’t just ordinary plastic – their properties are comparable to metal, but much lighter weight.
In the manufacture of any sort of vehicle, less weight equals less cost, and Boeing says that using OPM’s 3D printed parts is saving them about 60 percent compared with traditional manufacturing. While the company has not said what percentage of the seven-seat capsules will be 3D printed, it’s a pretty high percentage, according to Leo Christodoulou, director of structures and materials engineering at Boeing.
“It’s a significant fraction of the Starliner from the aspects of design, assembly and reliability of high integrity parts,” he said. “Using Oxford’s materials takes out a lot of cost.”
According to Larry Varholak, president of OPM’s aerospace business, the 3D printed parts for the Starliner include “everything from brackets supporting the propulsion system to internal structures for the air revitalization system.” But will people trust plastic parts to be able to safely taxi them around outer space? They should – OPM has demonstrated that 3D printed PEKK parts can withstand temperatures from minus 300 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and can resist both fire and radiation. Still, it’s understandable for people to be a bit apprehensive until the structures are proven to be reliable in space.
“We’re still in the show-me stage,” said OPM Chief Executive Scott DeFelice, adding on behalf of a skeptical public, “If you don’t show me the data I’m not going to believe you.”
The public will be able to see for itself next year, as the first Starliner is scheduled to blast off in June 2018 from Cape Canaveral, and the first crew will be carried on one of the capsules in August 2018. It will be launched on an Atlas V rocket, which also has a significant percentage of 3D printed parts. Discuss in the OPM forum at 3DPB.com.
[Source: Yahoo! Finance / Images: Boeing]