Technology Maturation for In-Space Manufacturing

R.A. Bardsley
United States

Keywords: in-space manufacturing, additive manufacturing, advanced materials, technology readiness level


Technology maturation for In-Space Manufacturing (ISM) is a critical step for long-term sustainability of extraterrestrial habitation and space exploration. Although humans live and thrive in low-earth orbit (LEO) on structures like the International Space Station (ISS), these processes are not sustainable long-term space solutions for habitation and exploration. These short-term habitation structures provide excellent test beds. Replacement parts for complex systems compete with mass and volume constraints for resupply life support payloads and come with high cost. In-space manufacturing enables flexible solution paths to unknown challenges that the crew will encounter. Feedstock materials can be synthesized from in-situ resource utilization, reducing payload requirements and total mission costs. Technology advancement for ISM often starts with translating existing processes for in-space application with the end goal of long-term habitation and exploration. This includes but is not limited to validation in extreme environments—in vacuum, at cryogenic temperatures, with varied levels of gravitational force, or under radiation exposure—based on the in-situ design requirements for the on-orbit or surface habitation. Advancement of a manufacturing process through technology readiness levels (TRL) for flight use does not equate to flight quality part production for all feedstocks. As terrestrial manufacturing processes develop, process monitoring should concurrently advance. Process monitoring is necessary to ensure the materials meet design requirements. In-space part certification is not comparable to that on Earth. Common inspection techniques may not be viable. Consequently, Non-Destructive Evaluation (NDE), in-situ process monitoring for ISM, and digital twins are of paramount importance. The path to successfully advance in-space manufacturing and part certification will be similar to what exists for terrestrial use but again, requires additional steps to ensure quality control as post-build inspections will be limited. End use requirements for ISM will likely be derived from aerospace standards of NASA-STD-6030 and NASA-STD-6033. Process monitoring for ISM will be heavily focused on Non-Destructive Evaluation (NDE) methods, as well as In-Situ Monitoring systems and digital twins for ISM components. This presentation discusses the path for in-space manufacturing process maturation through the lens of Technology Readiness Levels (TRL). Technology readiness for ISM is continuing to advance and will provide unknown opportunities for spare farers through lunar construction of habitats and infrastructure, in-situ recycling and reuse, on-demand replacement parts fabrication, and flexible solutions to the unconceived challenges ahead.