3D Printed Space Shuttle Challenger Replica to Launch from Cape Canaveral

NASA uses 3Diligent to prototype Space Shuttle Endeavor design changes

NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) is an independent agency of the United States Federal Government responsible for America’s civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. NASA succeeded the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) after the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite on October 4, 1957. This event caught the attention of the United States and forced a calculating look toward its own fledgling space efforts. Known as the Sputnik Crisis, Congress became alarmed by the perceived threat to national security and technological leadership and convened to urge immediate and swift action. On July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, establishing NASA.

Partially reusable, a space shuttle is a low-Earth-orbital spacecraft operated by NASA. Over the decades, building space shuttles has become an expensive business; a single flight is estimated to cost $1.06 billion, with more than $209 billion having been spent on the space shuttle program as of December 2010. The Space Shuttle Challenger was the second orbiter of NASA’s Space Shuttle program to be put into service, but on January 28, 1986, Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its tenth mission, resulting in the death of all on board.

Searching for safer, cost effective methods for testing design changes, NASA interviewed more than 100 world-renowned engineers in search of solid ideas for assessing design changes before actual space flight. In more than seven months of interviews, one candidate consistently stood out, 3Diligent. The company, which provides 3D printing, CNC machining, casting services, and injection molding was uniquely qualified to provide a fully disposable, actual-size replica from metals and polymers for a tiny fraction of the cost.

3D printing is so cost effective, NASA can launch as many as ten actual-size space shuttles—from a modified launch pad in Cape Canaveral—with less money than allocated for their annual office-supplies budget. While most of the engineers being interviewed had designed computer-simulation programs or smaller versions of the space shuttle, only 3Diligent’s designs were for the full 122.2 feet length, 56.67 feet height, and 78.06 feet wingspan, but at a mere 442 lbs., the prototype was a feather-light version of the Endeavor’s 4.5 million pounds at liftoff.

On January 6, 2020, at 6 AM EST, NASA launched 3Diligent’s Endeavor Ghost space shuttle to an altitude of 60 miles, just two miles short of outer space. The space shuttle returned to earth at 5:32 AM on January 7, 2020; landing safely at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to a standing ovation by an audience that included America’s last four presidents.

Cullen Hilkene, CEO at 3Diligent said, “Of course space was the biggest issue—not outer space or near space—a space large enough to construct a space shuttle isn’t readily available near our headquarters in Los Angeles. We were thrilled to receive an invitation to construct onsite at NASA. In addition to our print device, which we temporarily relocated, we had every imaginable tool, computer, software, and technology at our fingertips. As engineers, working at NASA was as exciting as being a teenage gearhead working on cars in Henry Ford’s garage.”

As engineers, working at NASA was as exciting as being a teenage gearhead working on cars in Henry Ford’s garage.

3Diligent didn’t 3D print the space shuttle as a whole product, each part, down to hex bolts no larger than a millimeter across, was printed and the facsimile shuttle assembled by the actual Endeavor teams. The shuttle, once complete, was transported to the launch pad on the same vehicle used for the actual shuttles, but special rigging had to be constructed to keep the lightweight prototype secured on the truck during transport.

The January launch and return were flawless and the tested design changes performed better than NASA had hoped. The total cost of design, print, assemble, launch, and return was just under $750,000, and NASA and 3Diligent have already begun production of Endeavor Ghost II, on which new landing gear will be evaluated.

3Diligent believes amazing things can happen if people tasked with designing and sourcing products have easier access to the world’s manufacturing tools and expertise. At the helm of a successful startup, Hilkrene understands the challenges of bringing a product from prototype to production, and he ensures his company constantly strives to improve product development and ongoing product lifecycle management through the use of intuitive web tools, strategic and design consulting, and the highest quality manufactured parts.