In June, the Marshall Center brought a variety of national engineering and manufacturing specialists to Huntsville, Alabama, to address strategies for developing a robust in-space transportation infrastructure -- one that eventually may include permanent refueling stations and maintenance platforms in space, as well as cargo vehicles that haul supplies across the "shipping lanes" of space as easily and regularly as we haul goods by truck or train here on Earth.
Sponsored by the NASA Exploration Team (NEXT), the workshop, "In-Space Manufacturing of Space Transportation Infrastructure," included NASA scientists and technologists as well as representatives from a number of aerospace contractors and the academic science community.
The three-day conclave included NASA scientists and technologists from the Marshall Center and Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, as well as academic and industry researchers specializing in advanced propulsion and manufacturing technologies and scientific study aboard the International Space Station -- a potential future "hub" of the in-space infrastructure.
Discussion focused on identifying elements of a proposed, space-based infrastructure that could enable a spectrum of diverse scientific and commercial missions in space. Participants demonstrated how current research and innovation call for -- and naturally lead to -- a future, space-based infrastructure.
They discussed manufacturing techniques capable of building and maintaining such a complex system, as well as challenges for technical research and potential benefits across a spectrum of interests, from commercial enterprises such as tourism and entertainment to increased scientific exploration of the solar system.
The NEXT strategic planning team was formed in 1999 to "create an integrated strategy for science-driven, rather than destination-driven, space exploration," said Les Johnson, In-Space Transportation manager for the Advanced Space Transportation Program at the Marshall Center. "NEXT is advocating the development of enabling technologies to benefit the entire spectrum of NASA enterprises for the exploration of space."
To accomplish this goal, NEXT seeks new means of facilitating the efforts of the national science community to generate advanced concepts and new approaches to space travel.
"We want to go to whatever venue in which the serious science questions are being asked -- and answer them," Johnson said.
Technologies discussed at the NEXT workshop included the newest NASA innovations and some next-generation updates of existing manufacturing techniques now in use at Marshall's National Center for Advanced Manufacturing. These technologies include:
Thermal spray manufacturing -- a technique developed at the Marshall Center for using heat and kinetic energy to melt and deposit material as a coating or structure -- could be used to coat parts and structures of space infrastructure, or even to form entirely new parts. It could also be used to restore or repair hardware in space.
Though it isn't actually a new technology, space welding is still considered a promising possibility for future space manufacturing. The technology was initially employed on the Russian Soyuz 6 mission in 1969, and the U.S. demonstrated the feasibility of electron beam welding on Skylab 1 in 1973. Though NASA ended its electron beam welding program in 1996, the technology remains viable.
Another innovative technology, free form fabrication, may allow space dwellers and explorers to quickly design and produce replacement parts in space -- no longer relying on delivery of new parts from Earth.
Much of the research underway on the International Space Station will have a direct impact on the success of in-space manufacturing. The altered environment of space changes the microscopic structure of materials in a number of beneficial ways. Researchers are exploring these advantages, and learning to manipulate fundamental processes such as solidification and combustion to develop successful, highly advanced manufacturing capabilities.
"It will take the talent and skills of countless individuals -- scientists, technologists, manufacturers and visionaries -- to accomplish ambitious, long-term human and robotic exploration of space," Johnson said. "The work of the NEXT team demonstrates that our goals are viable ones, and begins the process of putting them within reach."
Marshall Space Flight Center
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When The Glove Fits Get To Work
Huntsville - July 17, 2002
Astronauts literally got their hands on a new tool for conducting research aboard the International Space Station in the past week, completing the first in a series of materials science tests related to semiconductor manufacturing in the new Microgravity Science Glovebox. They also continued tending a bumper crop of soybeans in the Destiny lab. Space Station science experiments and payload operations are managed by the Payload Operations Center at Marshall Center.
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