3D Print Rocket Engines?

Could 3D printable open-source rocket engines be the next frontier? That’s the hope of DIYRockets, a company which advocates the open-source development of space. Yesterday, at The South by Southwest® conference in Austin, Texas, they joined with Sunglass to announce a new contest that will reward developers of a new 3D printable rocket engine design capable of putting nano-satellites (meaning very small payloads) into space.

Sunglass is a cloud-based 3D design platform, and it must be used if you want to qualify for the prizes, including a $5,000 prize for best design and a $2,500 prize for student teams.

DIYRockets co-founder Darlene Damm said that NASA’s recent move toward “private and public innovation…[makes] technology…now more affordable than ever, [thus] we see this as a greenfield opportunity to truly redefine space design and technology.” Although the prize focuses on just getting the technology to work well enough to get tiny payloads into orbit, the ultimate goal is to “disrupt” the space transportation industry — presumably by allowing small players to be able to lift their own objects into space.

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a new technique for creating objects from a digital model by laying down layer after layer to build up the item. Developers think it will have wide applications, such as the ability to print human organs for transplant into sick patients. However, it may also pose the threat of criminals being able to print illegal drugs or even weapons. While it’s illegal to print a 3D gun in the US, over 150,000 patterns were recently downloaded after a speech that President Obama gave on gun control.

But legal and bureaucratic challenges aren’t new to rocket builders. The model rocket building hobby, once a traditional way for young people to get excited about science and space, suffered greatly in the aftermath of the 911 attacks. To control terrorism, the engines and some kinds of fuel were placed under strict controls to make sure that explosives didn’t get into the wrong hands. Some hobbyists became frustrated with the restrictions and simply dropped the hobby.

And that’s a shame, because building model rockets inspired a whole generation of 1950s-era young people to study science and technology. The 1999 movie, October Skies was based on the true story of one young man, a teen-ager from a coal-mining town who got into a little trouble setting off rockets but who ultimately became an aerospace engineer as a result of his experiments.

If the 3D printing project works to create new rocket engines, it could be a boon to science educators as well as space entrepreneurs.

[US Space & Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL photo courtesy Elaine Radford]