Mankind first set foot on the moon in 1969, laying our first footprints on our orbiting partner, roughly 230,000 miles away. Nearly five decades have passed since we last visited. Today, NASA is developing the Orion spaceship, which will launch astronauts back into lunar orbit, to the moon’s surface and, if all goes as scheduled, to Mars.
Protolabs is one of the companies making NASA’s dream journey a reality—by providing sheet metal fabrication capabilities to aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, a major NASA contractor, for this critical next step to the Moon.
In order to boldly go where no human has gone before, Lockheed Martin is designing parts of the infrastructure that will support NASA’s Gateway concept.
The Gateway will act as a space port, orbiting the moon. The work continues in a Florida building, where the company is constructing an earthbound, full-sized physical model of the living quarters portion of the Gateway, called the Habitat Ground Test Article (HGTA).
The space-based version of this module will provide a comfortable environment for astronauts on their long journeys and is currently scheduled to launch in 2024.
It will dock with another module that will generate power and propulsion. That module is scheduled to launch in 2022—just three years from now.
The manufacturing partners needed to find a way to overcome space limitations in space.
Not surprisingly, when traveling through the vastness of space, you have to consider the small, but critical, details—like storage—as carefully as the big ones.
“Protolabs needed to fabricate a key piece of secondary structure for the HGTA,” said Chris Cloutier, Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Programs prototype lead. “It’s the backbone that will hold both the scientific experiments and payloads needed to maintain the habitat.”
Jeff Budny, a Lockheed Martin systems integration engineer, visited Protolabs’ Nashua, NH, facility to ensure that the company’s sheet metal fabrication capabilities were up to the task. He left confident in the team and the build began soon thereafter. Protolabs has partnered with Lockheed Martin before, including producing prototype parts for a portable drone.
Protolabs found that using sheet metal is the best strategy for limited space.
Several design considerations guided the aerospace and digital manufacturing company, including factors like weight, strength, longevity and, of course, safety:
- Weight is always important in space travel because excess weight means more fuel is needed to get off the ground and into space. Every pound makes a difference.
- Lightweight, but strong, aluminum proved the best material for this project.
- Protolabs’ framework had to be strong enough to hold heavy objects in place and survive the jostling that is inherent during a rocket launch.
- Cargo and experiments can’t tumble down from a storage rack mid-flight, so the system needed to be able to maintain its integrity when confronted with excessive g-forces.
- Because a space-based habitat is expected to last for a long time, it was equally important to think of the future and overall longevity of the parts.
“The parts that Protolabs created for this project will have to last for an entire generation—the lifetime of the project,” Cloutier said. “That means modularity is especially important so we can adapt the structure to meet tomorrow’s needs.”
As anyone who lives in a tiny house can tell you, it’s not how big the space is, it’s how you use it.
The storage area Lockheed Martin and Protolabs created can easily change configurations to accommodate today’s experiments or whatever might be needed in the future.
- Finally, and arguably most important, is safety.If you’ve ever scratched yourself on a metal rack, you know it’s an unpleasant moment. Imagine being 200,000 miles from Earth, wearing a pressurized suit for a trip to the moon or Mars. A cut from that same sharp edge would result in tragedy.
To that end, Protolabs carefully crafted parts, using techniques such as chamfering to eliminate sharp edges.
Some parts also have complex bends, which Protolabs manufactured to tight specifications.
When completed, the parts were shipped to Florida for what Cloutier referred to as “easy assembly.”
The Protolabs parts for this next-generation space mission are now installed in the HGTA, and Lockheed Martin’s designs are entering a test phase.
NASA astronauts will soon experience the HGTA environment for themselves and help determine if the model they have created meets their needs and expectations. As part of the testing, they will be looking closely at the storage modules Protolabs fabricated.
Cloutier and the Lockheed Martin team were pleased with the end result and look forward to working with Protolabs on future projects.
“Partnering with Protolabs was easy,” Cloutier said. “We ended up with high fidelity hardware at a bargain price on a very competitive schedule.”