The two halves of the the Pegasus XL payload fairing's composite shell are shown here being cleaned and inspected at Vandenberg Air Force Base before the spacecraft is encapsulated. (Source: NASA/Randy Beaudoin, Vandenberg Air Force Base)
Ann, while the application of composites for the booster is new stuff, their use in the spacecraft itself is old hat. I worked at one spacecraft plant where we made our own composites from raw materials. One of our direct competitors, with whom we were merged later on, got their composites from a company whose main business was railcars. It was an interesting revelation when we found out.
I actually worked on the testing of the UARS satelite structure. It was the first large composite structure. If you recall, UARS recently fell back to earth. It was one of the largest satellites to do so. It was the size of a school bus and filled the Shuttle cargo bay. In testing we found some interesting things out about how the composites reacted structurally. Now, this was in the 1980s. It would have been nice to have some of the more robust CAE tools available today.
How 3D printing fits into the digital thread, and the relationship between its uses for prototyping and for manufacturing, was the subject of a talk by Proto Labs' Rich Baker at last week's Design & Manufacturing Minneapolis.
How can automakers, aerospace contractors, and other OEMs get new metal alloys that are stronger, harder, and can survive ever higher temperatures? One way is to redesign their crystalline structures at the nanoscale and microscale.
Although a lot of the excitement about 3D printing and additive manufacturing surrounds its ability to make end-products and functional prototypes, some often ignored applications are the big improvements that can come by using it for tooling, jigs, and fixtures.
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