Spaceflight Insider

Aerojet Rocketdyne completes 3-D printed parts for Orion Spacecraft

Orion's reaction control system will keep the spacecraft's heat shield properly oriented during reentry. Image Credit: NASA

Orion’s reaction control system will keep the spacecraft’s heat shield properly oriented during re-entry. Image Credit: NASA

Aerojet Rocketdyne has recently completed 12 additively manufactured production nozzle extensions for use aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft. The nozzle extensions are part of the Orion crew capsule reaction control system (RCS) that Aerojet Rocketdyne is building for NASA and Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft’s prime contractors.

“These components are the first additively manufactured parts we have provided for the Orion spacecraft,” said Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of Advanced Space & Launch Programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne. “The reaction control system on the Orion crew module is critical for astronaut crew safety, which is why we have invested heavily in the development and testing of additively manufactured components.”

The 12 nozzles were made on a single additive manufacturing machine in three weeks, which is an approximately 40 percent reduction in production time in comparison to conventional manufacturing methods. Aerojet Rocketdyne will now conduct a series of inspections and hot-fire tests to qualify the components for  use during Orion’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) test flight on 2018.

The reaction control system will provide the Orion crew module with the ability to control its course after separating from the service module and ensure that the heat shield is properly oriented during re-entry. After re-entry, the system will keep the crew module stable under its parachutes and in a proper orientation for splashdown.

Additive manufacturing, also known as 3-D printing, reduces the cost to produce components, shortens build times and allows engineers to design components that were once impossible to make using traditional manufacturing techniques.

“The company has had several successes in developing this 3-D printing technology for a broad range of products – from discrete component demonstrations to hot-fire testing of engines and propulsion systems made entirely with additive manufacturing. Now, we can add qualifying components for human spaceflight programs to that list of accomplishments,” said Jay Littles, director of Advanced Launch Vehicle Propulsion at Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Aerojet Rocketdyne has been working in conjunction with NASA and the Air Force for over two decades to evolve the technology of additive manufacturing to meet the strict requirements of aerospace systems.

“We have invested the time and resources necessary to gain a thorough understanding of not only what it takes to build components, but how they will perform in their harsh environments,” added Littles. “What sets us apart from someone just buying a 3-D printer is that we understand the process from start to finish, from feed powders to the optimized machine process parameters, to the resulting material microstructures and material properties. Beyond the materials characterization efforts, we’ve analyzed and tested the components to ensure that they perform as designed.”

In 2018, an uncrewed Orion spacecraft will be launched atop NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket from Launch Complex 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. During Exploration Mission-1, Orion will travel thousands of miles beyond the Moon on a journey that will last approximately three weeks.

Video courtesy of Aerojet Rocketdyne


Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

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