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Elon Musk recently tweeted a photo of his SuperDraco rocket chamber emerging from an EOS 3D metal printer. Elon Musk, CEO and chief designer at SpaceX, is collaborating with NASA as part of a private enterprise bid to fill in the space launch capability gap left by the retirement of the space shuttle. SpaceX has successfully launched two official resupply missions to the international space station. A third is scheduled to be launched this spring.
The 3D printed rocket chamber, is a component of the SuperDraco rocket engine, which will power the launch abort system of future crewed Dragon missions. The launch abort system allows the crew to make a quick escape should a serious problem occur during launch. In such an emergency, eight SuperDraco engines built into the sides of the Dragon spacecraft, will carry astronauts safely to earth with pinpoint accuracy.
The launch escape system can provide a maximum of 120,000 pounds of thrust. The engines can be restarted multiple times and throttled. They can be reused repeatedly on multiple missions rather than being discarded after one use.
The obvious advantage of such a system is its ability to land Dragon back to earth propulsively. Parachutes will be used as a backup measure should problems occur with the SuperDraco engines. This propulsive landing capability has other potential uses such as landing a craft on the moon or Mars. Elon Musk has openly expressed his ambitions of a moon or Mars landing.
SpaceX has made multiple ground tests of the SuperDraco rocket engine and reports that the test results have exceeded design requirements. NASA’s commercial crew program awarded SpaceX $75 million to develop the escape system.
Aerospace 3d printing is an integral part of SpaceX's design and manufacturing process. They have recently integrated hand gesture based 3D modeling with 3D printing to facilitate the rapid design, prototyping, and manufacture of aerospace components.