186: 3D Printing to Space?


Matt and Sean talk about NASA’s use of 3D printing to improve propulsion research, and more from the mailbag. 

Watch the Undecided with Matt Ferrell episode, Why NASA’s New 3D Printed Rocket Engine Matters https://youtu.be/SxPglBs4JZo?list=PLnTSM-ORSgi7uzySCXq8VXhodHB5B5OiQ

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On today’s episode of Still Look To Be Determined, we’re going to be talking about SMAs. That’s right. So many acronyms, NASA, RDRE, RAMPT. At a certain point, if it sounds like we’re just reading off a bowl of alphabet soup, just know we’re talking about science. Hey everybody, as usual, I’m Sean Ferrell. I’m a writer.

I write some sci fi. I write some stuff for kids. And I’m just generally curious about technology. And luckily for me, My brother is that Matt of Undecided with Matt Ferrell, which takes a look at emerging tech and its impact in our lives. And today we’re going to be talking about some interesting NASA research.

Utilizing 3D printing technologies, but before we get into that, Matt, how are you doing today?

Doing good. I’m getting a weird

big deep breath,

completely separate from rockets, uh, in our house. We finally are trying to grow a lawn in our new house. The past few days, my wife and I have been dragging hoses around and can I just describe to you, Sean, how much of a mud pit our

yard is?


The backyard is so muddy. Like every foot step, it’s just like you get, you sink in and you’re like, we’re killing grass with every single step. It’s just a, it’s a, it’s a, it’s awful. This is absolutely awful. Have you thought about

hosting a Lollapalooza? Yes.


Every Lollapalooza I ever went to included an incredibly muddy mosh pit and lots of torrential rain.

Now I’m revealing my age. Oh, this guy went to Lollapalooza? As we usually like to do before we get into our conversation about Matt’s most recent episode, we’d like to revisit some comments from older episodes, and I wanted to take a look at this one from episode 184 of Still to be Determined, which was our episode just last week on catching up Matt’s visit to Fully Charged Live, heat pumps, and the rise of solar power.

And there was this comment from Deadassentful who responded to my suggestion that Matt and I always liked. Ideas for future episodes. And Mr Dedocentful was kind enough to share multiple suggestions. So, this is what he had to say. You asked for ideas for future shows. Here are some. One, I installed solar panels in 2013, and I currently have a failure in the inverter.

It appears that SolarEdge may cover this. If not, what would you recommend as a replacement? Jumping off of that, I’m suggesting, Matt, that perhaps a look at how easy it is to repair solar panels. And how easy it is to repair home solar panel installations would be an interesting subject for you to look at.

Another comment here is one disappointment with solar has been the inability to use power when the grid is down. I understand that this is a safety issue for grid workers recommended solutions to install extremely expensive battery backups. That’ll raise issues in number three of my suggestions. Is there a cost effective solution to utilize the power generated in the array?

When the grid is not available. So that’s another subject for you to look at, like totally off grid. What does that look like? I think number three, answer that question.

There is a

solution to that . Okay, number three. When looking into battery backup in the northeast, you run into fire code technical constraints.

Fire codes restrict battery systems to garages or outbuildings. The batteries require heat to charge and the logical place to put a batteries in the basement. But fire codes restrict that. He’s looking for solutions, non lithium batteries that can be safely used in basements perhaps. So there’s another jumping off point for you.

Number four years ago, you did an episode on battery snowblowers. In my opinion, you should revisit this on a regular cycle. Not just snowblowers, but all sorts of power equipment. I have a level two charger. Is there a snowblower I can use it with? Seems like a no brainer as opposed to battery packs. I love that one.

Yeah, definitely. And then there’s this final one. Number five. I have a Chevy Volt approaching a hundred thousand miles. An ICE engine, perhaps 20 percent miles per gallon over 130 miles per gallon. With a little care, this car should be able to run over 250, 000 miles. If I have to replace the battery… I’m SOL, any suggestions?

So I think using that as a jumping off point, I would suggest perhaps like older electric vehicle tech, how easy is it to repair and what are the options for somebody who’s looking into that? He ends his comment with, I can give you five more ideas, but I’ll call it quits. Thank you for such an in depth…

Uh, list that is sent full and I invite you to jump back in on this episode into the comments with your other five and I invite everybody else to do the same. Do you have other subjects that you think Matt should take a look at and that he and I should discuss on future episodes? Let us know. And then.

Jumping into Matt’s most recent episode. This is his September 19th, 2023 episode, Why NASA’s New 3D Printed Rocket Engine Matters. And Matt, before we get into the meat and potatoes of the discussion, I’m wondering how did the discussion happen? You’re talking to a gentleman who works at NASA. That doesn’t just happen every day.

So do you want to walk us through? What was the connection here? Did you understand you wanted to talk about this subject and reached out to somebody to do that or was somebody available? You just happened to have a bump in at a conference or something. How did this all come together?

It came about because it’s like, I’ve been obsessed with additive manufacturing and 3d printing.

And I was doing research into different aspects of it. One of the ones that bubbled up a while back was 3d printing rockets. And then the news earlier in this year came out about NASA’s new engine that they were developing. And so it was on our backlog of video ideas to do. And so we started doing outreach and I’ve reached out to several different companies that are doing this kind of stuff for rockets.

And one of the groups we reached out to was we reached out to NASA. Just kind of a long shot of like Maybe they’d be willing to talk to us and they actually were so it was, it was a lot of fun being able to talk to Paul and I don’t know if you could pick up on it, but he seems genuinely giddy about this topic.

And I got giddy talking to him about this topic, but it was, it was, I was, I just lucked out in the fact that they were willing to talk to me about it. Yeah. The

two of you were adults, but you had the expressions of 10 year olds talking about Star Wars. It was at moments he was saying things that you could tell he was genuinely like, this is so cool.

And you were like, Oh my God, that’s so cool. And it was, it was really, uh, there were actually some comments that were along the lines of how endearing, how, how heartwarming to see this kind of discussion around technology. I did want to bring up as, like, as we’re talking about the appearance of the two of you, do you want to talk a little bit about how often you look surprised?

There were often moments where he would say something and then there would be a cutaway in the video, but the moment before the cutaway took place, your expression would be one of, uh, And then it would cut away. And I’m just curious, how much of the information that he was dropping were you genuinely like, that’s amazing.

That’s incredible. I can’t believe that.

It was one of those, I knew some of what he was talking about, but I didn’t know the extent. Like, it was like, I knew that something was possible or I knew that they were doing it, but then he would say, oh yeah, and it’s improved things by X percent. And it’d be like, wait, what?

Yeah. I hadn’t seen news that it was that big of a jump or it was used that much, or it saved that much time. It’s like, there were aspects of the stuff that he was talking about that just completely, I just was not prepared for. And so it was one of those, it was an eyeopening conversation for me.

Yeah, he mentioned at one point that it used to be the goal of a half percent to a percent was the goal of improvement of efficiency.

And then they were seeing jumps of, I believe it was 20 percent something that was of a magnitude of scale that was very different. And then he later shared cost savings that I think were close to like 50%. And it was that kind of dumbfounding leaps that just didn’t seem like it would be possible. So, your conversation, uh, centered on their 3D printing, effectively the lab research going into 3D printing.

And there were some questions from people in the comments that were looking for like big picture, how do these stack up against current engines in use? If these were able to be brought out tomorrow, are these engines on par with, or are they worse than, but getting faster research? Or are they actually better than what we currently are using on the rocket technology?

The current state they’re in, they’re not better than what we have now because they’re not, they’re not there yet. But the, if they achieve what they’re theoretically capable of achieving and they, and they finalize it where they’re actually usable rockets, they’re going to be dramatically better than what we have today.

So it’s one of those, it’s still early days for this new design. But once they get to the point where it’s like, it’s an actual replacement for a rocket and they’re being put into use, the amount of fuel it’s going to save, all those kinds of benefits that come out of this are going to be huge. So it’s, it’s not a small jump, it’s a major jump, uh, for these RDRE rockets that they’re designing.


given the amount of time that it takes to go from conception to actual practice. You know, in the real world we’re talking probably 10 years, 15. I

don’t think so. I mean, if you think about like the, uh, yeah, I mean, this might be apples and oranges, but SpaceX, um, is a good example of. I don’t want to say like the Facebook motto of, uh, run fast and break things, you know, move fast and break things.

But it’s one of those SpaceX kind of operates in that mode. And the speed at which that they are designing new systems and getting them tested and rolled out is way faster than that 10 to 15 year timeframe. Maybe it’s three to five years. I have no idea what this will take for them to finish this RDRE.

Um, so I’m not going to even make a guess, but I don’t think it’s 15 years or even a decade. I think it’s going to be sooner than that mainly because. of the additive manufacturing process because of how quickly they can iterate on the designs to test. That’s part of the benefits of this, where the old way of doing things, maybe it was a decade or 15 years.

It’s not going to be that now.

There was a lot of conversation in this about, uh, offshoot technology. And so in the comments, there was this from Digiride who commented good coverage. The one thing about any tech like this is that we cannot imagine the improvements that are going to come from it.

Earthbound usage will provide benefits that have not been thought of yet. So I can imagine the most obvious relationship. Would be fuel consumption, fuel usage, the ways to improve engines, and that might include, um, commercial airliners and things like that, where you would want to lighten the load of fuel, create the more efficient engine and, uh, Leap off from there, but I’m wondering just off the top of your head, and you and I have talked in general about this before, but can you think of in the history of NASA’s research?

Can you think of some examples of technology that came out of NASA’s research that is now commonplace today in . Ways that we hear on the ground may not even even recognize. And when people say things like, NASA’s a boondoggle, NASA’s a waste of money. Why are we doing all of that? It doesn’t have any impact on our lives.

Why are we bothering to look at rocks? What are some of the things that are just day-to-day things around us that we don’t even realize are born of NASA’s research?

I mean, think about the camera in your phone, . I mean, that’s the first one. Yeah, we take. We take for granted these amazing phones, like I, like the new iPhone 15 just came out and yeah, I couldn’t help myself.

I got it. Um, and this,

this, this camera has a,

like a 5X telephoto zoom in it, which is just mind bending that they were able to get that into such a thin little thing with a prismatic system that they created. But the CMOS sensor, the stuff that’s on these cameras. Came out of a lot of research, not, not completely, but like a huge amount of it came from NASA and space exploration.

They had to create these sensors that were going to be used in satellites and for, you know, out in space. And that stuff is now in our daily lives. And so it’s one of those, you take this stuff for granted, you don’t think about it and the way it trickles down, you may not see that connection, but it is there.

And so to think that it’s a boondoggle, I really kind of bristle at that because the advances that NASA does. They’re spending the money on these breaking the ground where a for profit company would never kind of waste the money or spend the money to invest it because there’s not a sure fire thing there.

But NASA is trying to solve a problem that they have in front of them. Like we’re trying to get to the moon to do this thing. And so they’ll invent 50 things to make that possible. And those 50 things trickle out into the private industry and become all these things we take advantage of. So there’s this.

Huge benefit that comes from it, and it

gets overlooked a lot. Just in some very, very cursory research on my part, uh, a few items that I found were directly related to NASA and NASA researchers. Um, as Matt just pointed out, cell phone camera tech. One of my favorite comments on this video was somebody saying, How come they aren’t taking cell phone camera technology?

And applying that onto NASA’s research modules and rovers and things like that. And I just loved the mind bendy, like, this person’s comment is, how come my phone has a better camera than that rover? Well, that rover went into space. Years ago, and the technology that went with that rover led to your camera, not the other way around.

Um, but cell phone camera tech, memory foam, baby formula, food safety standards, which were begun in the sixties for astronauts. And they were so high, they started being applied across the board and have become food safety standards that are now used internationally. Uh, Nestle’s freeze drying technology started in preparation for getting food that could be freeze dried and preserved, like, basically as infinitely as possible for NASA astronauts.

And cochlear implants were designed by a NASA engineer who did work on that in his lunch breaks while working in it. So.

Oh, just on his lunch

break. Just, you know, on my lunch break, I like to play video games. And on his lunch break, he solved deafness. For a lot of people. There was also this comment from JM Kektrick who wrote Matt, during your conversation with Paul, did he say anything about an aerospike nozzle design?

I only ask because the nozzle in your demo clip appeared to have an aerospike adjacent design. If so, that would be almost as innovative as the R D R E technology.

Did he answer that question? No. And to kind of give you some insight into the conversation, there were some guidelines put in place for our talk.

They weren’t allowed to show me. or send me any footage of the detailed aspect of the additive manufacturing process or like a cross section of what it looks like and all this kind of stuff. Because when you’re talking about


designs, that stuff could be used for nefarious purposes by other organizations around the world.

And they, those are on lockdown and they do not share. Intimate details about the engine designs. Um, so no, that did not, that specific aspect did not come up in our

conversation. Finally, there was this from Clark Weirda who raised the question about NASA’s competition writing, I’m surprised a discussion of 3d printed rocket engines does not mention rocket lab.

I could be wrong, but I was under the impression that they’ve been launching 3d printed engines for a few years now. Do you want to talk a little bit about rocket lab? Are you aware of them? I am aware of

them. I’m not sure if they have been for, like, 3D printing full rocket engines for several years.

I’ll have to double check on that. But there’s another company that’s doing it too called Relativity Space. They actually launched, earlier in the year, they launched, um, one of their first 3D printed rockets. Um, and speaking of which, I’m actually going to be going out to Relativity Space in about a month.

I’m going down south to see, um, a test firing of one of their new rockets. Um, so, yeah, there’s, there’s, there’s companies, private companies that are doing this right now that are printing aspects, either the full rockets or portions of the rockets, um, the engines themselves, or just components of the engines.

Um, That this is a common practice at this point, this right now with all these different companies

doing this, it’s really remarkable that we’re still in the midst of a space race. We don’t think of it. In that way anymore, but we literally are. And just as a demonstration that space exploration continues to be a real thing in today’s New York times, there’s an article I invite people to go look for it or to look for other articles from other news sources if they don’t have access to the times.

In the Times, it’s the article, A NASA spacecraft comes home with an asteroid gift for Earth. The seven year OSIRIS REx mission ended on Sunday with the return of Regolith from the asteroid Bennu, which might hold clues about the origins of life in our solar system. Bennu is a asteroid that is roughly as wide as the Empire State Building is tall, and This satellite went and hung out with the asteroid for a period of time, collecting material from it.

That asteroid is currently millions of miles from Earth. Think about that. It’s really just remarkable. So, over a seven year period, this tiny spacecraft from Earth made it to an asteroid, hung out with it, and then returned. And it’ll be… Part of the craft that brought samples back landed by parachute in Utah.

We have that ability to do all of that. It is really remarkable. It is a stunning, stunning, stunning achievement. So listeners, please jump into the comments. Let us know what you think about all of this. Uh, new development and what kinds of questions you have for Matt regarding his visit in the future to Relativity Space.

Do you have anything you’d like to take with, you’d like to have him take with him in mind as far as questions, subjects to bring up, or things to look for while he’s there? Let us know in the comments. Thank you so much everybody for dropping in and sharing your time with us and don’t forget to… Go back and visit Matt’s main channel, Undecided with Matt Ferrell.

And if you’d like to support the show, please consider reviewing us. Go back wherever you found this and leave a review. Don’t forget to subscribe and don’t forget to share it with your friends. And if you’d like to more directly support us, you can click the join button on YouTube or you can go to stilltbd.

fm. Click the become a supporter button there. Both of those ways allow you to throw coins at our heads. The welts will heal, the podcast gets made, and then everybody is happy. Thank you so much everybody for watching or listening. We’ll talk to you next time.

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