Technological convergence is what really advances us forward. While individual technological progress can thrust us forward, we really see exponential change when different technologies converge.
It is often a situation where one technology is able to leverage another for advancement.
We are seeing this in the space race that is taking place.
At the heart of this is a topic we discussed quite frequently. 3-D printing is making a radical push forward in many different industries. As noted in the article 3-D Printing Disrupting Construction, we can see how this technology is helping to lower the cost of building different structures.
Many believe 3-D printing can offer many of the same benefits to our advancement in the space age.
The Space Age
We saw the original space race occur between governments. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, this was the medium where the United States and the Soviet Union squared off. Each country was staking its claim to what it believed was the future.
The Soviets were the first to get into space yet the American bested them by landing on the Moon. Both ended up being significant accomplishments which were not really followed upon.
For a couple decades, the United States space program was advanced by NASA. The government was at the center of it, operating the Space Shuttle program. This was not the most efficient of operations while also failing to capture the imagination of the general public. When the program ended, few really even took notice.
This is not the case today. To start, this era is marked by private companies taking the initiative. We are not seeing the advancement being pushed by governments. Instead, it is the entities such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blur Origin pushing the envelop of what is possible.
Since private enterprise is mostly running the show, costs are a major concern. Unlike the government which specializes in spending other people's money, these institutions have people to answer to. Thus, innovation is at the heart of what is taking place.
Do you think going from 5,600 parts to 40 is an improvement in efficiency?
When it comes to rocketry, this is what 3-D printing is bringing to the table. The ability to reduce the number of parts during manufacturing reduced the number of hours required for assembly. Instead, sections are printed in complete form.
A redesign of the Apollo F-1 engines using 3D printing reduced the number of parts from 5,600 to just 40. No company has yet to reduce this number down to one, but it’s undeniable that 3D printing has brought about a new age of fast, responsive rocket engine development.
One of the biggest advantages to printing rockets for less money is the ability to blow them up. It is quite common for companies to experience rockets bursting into flames. The ability to print them in many different materials allows for rapid testing.
Essentially, rocket research is best described as "fail faster". The fact they can do it cheaper makes it a more viable industry.
This is becoming a central part of the space industry. 3-D printing technology is becoming the standard. No longer is it a novel idea that companies are experimenting with.
Virtually all new rocket companies and space startups are adopting 3D metal-printing technology. It accelerates their development phase, helping them survive the crucial years before they manage to get anything into space. Of note are Rocket Lab, which uses its 3D-printed engine to launch rockets from New Zealand, and Relativity Space which is 3D printing its entire rocket. In the UK there’s, Skyrora and Orbex. The latter aims to launch a rocket using a 3D-printed engine as early as 2022.
While this is not the "replicator" from Star Trek, yet, it is a major step forward in the manufacturing of rockets. As we can see, there are many companies that are utilizing 3-D printing technology. So far, we are developing prototypes by many of these types of rockets will be launched in the next year.
The idea is to leverage the rapid advancement in 3-D printing to accelerate the progress being made in rocketry. In turn, we should see the cost of getting into space come down while also being able to produce more in less time.
How this all unfolds remains to be seen. However, it is safe to say that, throughout this decade, both 3-D printing and rockets will be advancing in parallel. Will that get us to the Moon or Mars, we cannot tell. What it will do is allow for less expensive rockets built in a shorter period of time.
This technology will help advance us into the Space Age.
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