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Garden of the gods final, the space revolution

Published on:
April 24th 2018

Viva la revolución!

Our past 10 years covering the National Space Symposium have been mostly about powershifts in established industry, and lately the billionaire barons.

This time was different. In the exhibition hall, we entered a bustling makerspace of energetic people and fresh upstarts.

A total transformation of the entire sector is taking place. Speed and intelligence are overtaking power and money.

To rephrase Andreessen: Smartware is eating Space.

New technologies edging out old procedures are computer-aided design and machining software, 3D printing, and robotics.

3D printing (rapid prototyping/manufacturing)

First time I saw 3D print in action was almost 20 years ago. At a citizen tech lab in lower Manhattan, a sculpture of Mount Everest rose from a cloud of white powder. 10 years later in San Francisco, I printed my own first parts in carbon fiber. It was fun but not yet useful.

Now it's the biggest thing to happen Space since Sputnik. And we are only at the beginning.

Replacing software services, intelligent hardware could become the next Silicon Valley-style startup boom. Rocket builders include still fairly unknown names such as Rocketlab, Ursa Major, Firefly, Relativity and more. We're talking from concept to launch in 60 days.

Where 3D printing previously limited choice of materials, high-end standard printers ($0.5-1M) can now print in materials that bring Space forward, although faster and cheaper.

Enabling the new rocket-builders are manufacturers such as Hexcel (advanced composites), and Protolabs ("fastest CNC in the world"), with 1-day turnaround plus 3D printing. You can order your own, large robotic 3D printer, from Colorado Springs locals Titan Robotics. “Why upscaling printers, better downscale CNCs,” company rep Kate Reimer said the founder figured.

'Smaller is better' means clustering of engines, including the tiny ones. New Zealand based Rocketlab launched with nine small (22kN) 3D printed engines some months ago. Others are chomping at the bit.

Rapid iteration drops needs for rigorous testing, which puts even reusability in question.

Apollo veterans onboard

All who try it, love it. 3D printing brings amazing possibilities to unfunded makers, but also the big companies.

As technologies improve, new generations of launchers, including the heavy, will downsize. During a special media brief, Rocketdyne, the main US engine builder even before Apollo, mentioned 50-70% savings in cost and production times.

To Tom's question how 3D printing had affected the company, "will future rocket engines look the same?" CEO Eileen Drake (former US Army heli pilot), replied,

“Yes, it will change everything. Not just engines, but other parts of the rocket, plumbing, tanks. We can change details in a way we couldn’t before.”


Rapid design and manufacturing still need a hand in actual orbit. Enter robotic arms, the latest rage in vacuum assembly.

Following the industrial revolution last century, in the new Millenium, modern robotics are radically transforming car manufacturing and warehouse handling (think how you almost never get a wrong item in your Amazon delivery box). Now the robots are taking on Space.

We are not there yet, but we are getting there fast. "When we put the Canadarm on ISS we didn’t know what to do with it," said Maximilian Maier, working on a German version for the past 10 years. "Then everyone started to use it and build their own arms because it proved so practical."

The Germans had theirs up for 6 years and then got it back, ripe with precious data. The arm had been sitting outside the ISS with no protection. It came back almost completely intact.

Among some of the considerations, said Max, was that no oxygen means no corrosion (rust) so things stick to each other. Plastics are forged together on a molecular level. A thin coat of oxygen will protect parts.

For fully automated systems, we are improving precision. Mathematical models get confused by things that move unexpectedly, or cosmic light affecting guiding opticals. US Navy cadet Dakota said her team is currently designing two guiding systems working as one; a 3D camera for the general overview and a small optical built into the hand (grip).

The Germans displayed 2 arms; one had four fingers (for Space), and one had five (for Earth-based robotics). Why fingers at all, we asked?  “We build robots for humans right now,” Max explained, "and humans are used to working with fingers." But that too will change.

“When we build machines to be operated by machines they will look different.”

Bringing it to Space

Next generation will use robotics, as well as local rock and dust for additive manufacturing on the moon and Mars.

I asked around the exhibition hall if there is anything prohibiting additive manufacturing in actual Space. The answer came back negative.

Made in Space have their printer on ISS. They maintain it from Earth on dedicated data time, but the manufacturing is mostly automated - all astronauts need to do is change material feed and remove finished product.

The 0G environment created at the Space Station doesn’t affect layering, the team told me, because the nozzle is kept close to the base.

The robotic systems helping workers at Amazon warehouses should one day work equally well in Space.

"If you remove the joystick," one engineer told me, "and go completely autonomous, the challenge right now is software, not hardware."


Lower launch and manufacturing costs are changing everything.

Once focused on sophisticated (expensive) dishes controlled from ground stations and deployed in fairly stable, wide-eyed high orbits; DARPA too now calls for cheap, light and fast.

The spear-heading national security agency envisions swarms of fully autonomous small satellites closer to Earth.

The plan is a fleet of 60-200 satellites in LEO, at a cost of 6 million each including launch. This would provide the agency with a mesh cheaper than one single large satellite high up.

Small satellites range anywhere from 1 kg to 500 kg. For comparison, Rocketlab's 3D printed engines recently ferried 150 kg to LEO at a cost of $1.5 M. There's your business plan.

At the symposium, Darpa presented their Black Jack strategy,  intended to increase agility and security in Space. Scores of targets are harder to hack and attack. Fast iterations allow frequent updates of technology. Proximity brings low latency and instant, 100% information transfer instead of waiting for 18-hour overpass.

Meanwhile, commercial satellite swarms initiatives include OneWeb for 720 satellites, Telesat Canada for 117 satellites and Elon Musk, true to his nature planning a mega constellation of 4,425 broadband satellites in LEO within 6-10 years to supply all of Earth with internet and finance his plan to colonize Mars.

Where the government previously bought their own satellites, in the new constellation Darpa may piggyback on commercial launches and hardware.


Most things in LEO deorbit fairly fast, while nothing deorbits in high orbit which is problematic in terms of junk. Three companies are working on autonomous satellite reparations in GEO.

DARPA is further developing sort of a universal "USB port" that would allow the agency to repair any satellite, not just their own. These "space mechanics" will bring their own fuel, can fuel up and fix any model, adjust trajectories, or deorbit them if needed.

Rounding up

Propellant varieties were by large the usual since Saturn V/Apollo.

Kerolox and liquid hydrogen/oxygen for Earth launches, and MMH/NTO mixes for Space. We sensed a general warming to (safe) nuclear energy and a budding interest for electrical propulsion.

So there you have it.

Future is accelerating because Universe itself demands change. In The Great Dying (Permian mass extinction), a staggering 96% of species vanished.

The good news is we are the chosen ones. All life on Earth today is descended from the 4% of species that survived.

As long as we don't become complacent dinosaurs, it's all within our grasp.

Tina Sjogren
Tina Sjogren
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...and where it ends. Tina in Rocketdyne's booth. Compare the engine in the next picture to this 3D printed Bantam. A fraction in size at the same output. Much less complexity is just one of the advantages, the company CEO told us.

After some corporate acrobatics, Texas-based Firefly is back, now with a more conventional design. On display the 2nd stage "lighting" engine, 70kN. The Reaver 1st stage packs 180kN. CEO is a former SpaceX/Blue Origin/Virgin engineer backed by a Ukraine investor making his fortune, among other ventures, from online dating site Cupid.

Jeff Bezo’s impressive engine sat outside, with most people passing by it. And this season the M word is not Mars but Musk. The company was not present and we heard SpaceX rarely mentioned during the event.

Relativity plan to 3Dprint everything, entire rockets and finally an engine on Mars. The small company estimates it can reduce the number of parts by a factor of ten. Leasing test facilities from NASA, Relativity just secured $35 million from Silicon Valley.

Founded in late 2015, Relativity plans to cluster 3D printed engines in a process to iterate and scale rockets quickly. Image of cargo compartment from the company website. Incidentally, one of the two young founder's ex-boss, Elon Musk, recently launched a Tesla to Space.

There is an increased willingness to cooperate. Like we all want this to happen now, and have the tools at last. Image of Nick Doucette of Ursa Major Tech, a small young team from Denver area in Colorado, working on 2 engines: Hadley kerolox 22kN (in picture) and Ripley hydrocarbonlox at 155kN thrust . Nick shakes hand with VisserPrecision, also Denver, using laser to bond strong metal and alloy materials.

Tom checking out Motiv Space Systems with Chris Thayer (right). The young Pasadena, Ca, based company is building the robotic arm (43 kg strength) for JPL's 2020 Mars mission.

DARPA dropped the Germans, probably due to politics. The inventor was bummed about that. But this is America. Shortly after this pic of Tom chatting with Max (left) about his robot arm, a quiet man stepped forward and said, "I may have the cash you need."