The Role of 3D Printing in the Skyrocketing Space Market

By on June 13th, 2024 in news, Usage

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Kam Ghaffarian [Source: India Times]

Charles R. Goulding and Preeti Sulibhavi discuss how 3D printing has the ability to transform the rapidly growing space market.

Once again, after half a century, the US has built a spacecraft that successfully landed on the moon on February 23, 2024. The lander is called Odysseus and it was built by private space company Intuitive Machines. The camera, called EagleCam, was built by students at Embry-Riddle a Florida-based aeronautical university. 

Although Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Sir Richard Branson usually get all the media attention, Kam Ghaffarian has consistently made astounding accomplishments in the private commercialization of the aerospace industry for decades now.

With NASA working with private companies to build landers in more cost and time-effective ways, Intuitive Machines “landed” this remarkable job.

With his dual role leading both Axiom Space and Intuitive Machines, Ghaffarian has been at the forefront of leveraging advanced technologies like 3D printing for the space industry.

Intuitive Machines

Intuitive Machines is an American company headquartered in Houston, Texas. It was founded in 2013 by Kam Ghaffarian, Stephen Altemus, and Tim Crain. Intuitive Machines is completing its lunar program which will provide lunar surface access, lunar orbit delivery, and communications at lunar distance.

Intuitive Machines’ Lunar Payload Delivery Services (LPDS) program opens access to the Moon for the progress of humanity. NASA selected its LPDS program for three lunar missions which will send the first American spacecraft to the surface of the Moon since the Apollo Program and send the first spacecraft ever to reach the lunar south pole.

Intuitive Machines is one of NASA’s contractors as part of the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Delivery Services (CLPS) initiative. The company has extensive expertise supporting NASA centers and aerospace primes like Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman. This breadth of experience has enabled Intuitive Machines to thrive as commercial space activity has accelerated.

Intuitive Machines and SpaceX have analyzed the data from the lunar lander fueling tests for the IM-1 mission and determined the testing campaign is complete. SpaceX’s Falcon rocket blasted off in the middle of the night from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, on February 15, 2024, dispatching Intuitive Machines’ lunar lander on its way to the moon, 230,000 miles (370,000 kilometers) away. The lander resembled a stunning six-pointed star jewel — each point a leg — as it successfully separated from the upper stage and drifted off into the black void with the blue Earth far below.

The Intuitive Machines IM-1 mission is the Company’s first attempted lunar landing as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (“CLPS”) initiative, a key part of NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration efforts. The science and technology payloads sent to the Moon’s surface as part of CLPS intend to lay the foundation for human missions and a sustainable human presence on the lunar surface.

Axiom Space is a private American aerospace manufacturer and orbital spaceflight services company founded in 2016 by Kam Ghaffarian and Michael Suffredini. Based in Houston, Texas, Axiom Space aims to develop privately funded space stations as successors to the International Space Station (ISS). Co-founder and executive chairman Ghaffarian has over 30 years of experience in the aerospace industry. Under his leadership, Axiom Space is working to provide infrastructure in low Earth orbit and enable a thriving space economy by manufacturing modules, spacecraft, and orbiting platforms. The company has partnered with SpaceX and NASA to launch its first space station modules in the coming years.

Axiom Space is has been collaborating with Made In Space (now Redwire) since 2017 to 3D print parts in space. Both companies are finding this partnership a success:

“Axiom and Made In Space are adding to the space ecosystem, serving a growing market and enabling innovative approaches from processes learned on the International Space Station. This partnership allows us to continue to evolve and develop new products and allow our customers to invest in space manufacturing knowing that there will be an ongoing human presence on orbit,” said Andrew Rush, CEO of Made In Space. “They are the ideal partner for manufacturing new technologies in space and leveraging our new capabilities.”

Axiom is not holding back on his praise of Made in Space either:

“Made In Space carries a rich legacy in manufacturing. This partnership marks an important next step in humanity’s reach into space,” Michael Suffredini, CEO of Axiom Space said. “In-space manufacturing provides a unique class of products beneficial to the communications, materials and biomedical industries on Earth. Made In Space is an exemplary company to collaborate with to meet the demand for in-space manufacturing, and we are thrilled to build a partnership with the individuals who have proven their abilities in zero-g flights and on ISS.”

The growth of in-space manufacturing capabilities like 3D printing has been crucial for the burgeoning commercial space industry. Launching mass to orbit is extremely expensive, so the ability to produce parts and tools on-demand greatly reduces upfront costs.

Bioprinting in Space

3D bioprinting is soaring into space as well. What may not be that obvious, and why 3D printing in space makes sense is because Microgravity can function as a cofactor for 3D printing of tissues. In the absence of gravitational forces, lower-viscosity bioinks can be used, improving printability of bioinks and viability of cells. Maintenance of 3D organization allows for the creation of more complex tissue structures such as vascular tubes with retained internal lumens and spaces. Biotech companies are well on their way to developing the equipment and optimizing conditions for bioprinting tissue in microgravity, and several projects are in progress.

Axiom Space is actively developing 3D bioprinting for space applications. In addition, Axiom is also collaborating with Orbital Composites. The team, which included Axiom, Orbital, Northrup Grumman and the Southwest Research Institute, recently won the Small Business Innovation Research Contract, awarded through the SpaceWERX Orbital Prime Program. The amount of the grant was for US$1.7 million and it supports developing technology that can withstand the extreme temperatures and radiation of spaceflight.

Looking forward, all signs point to accelerated growth as the commercial space industry expands and this aggressive strategy will require efficient, scalable solutions, like 3D printing.

The Research & Development Tax Credit

The now permanent Research & Development Tax Credit (R&D) Tax Credit is available for companies developing new or improved products, processes and/ or software.

3D printing can help boost a company’s R&D Tax Credits. Wages for technical employees creating, testing and revising 3D printed prototypes can be included as a percentage of eligible time spent for the R&D Tax Credit. Similarly, when used as a method of improving a process, time spent integrating 3D printing hardware and software counts as an eligible activity. Lastly, when used for modeling and preproduction, the costs of filaments consumed during the development process may also be recovered.

Whether it is used for creating and testing prototypes or for final production, 3D printing is a great indicator that R&D Credit eligible activities are taking place. Companies implementing this technology at any point should consider taking advantage of R&D Tax Credits


Overall, the private space race is rapidly accelerating, with reusable rockets, satellite internet constellations, space tourism and more. Quiet leaders like Kam Ghaffarian recognized early how technologies like additive manufacturing would be enabling capabilities for affordable, responsive and customized space systems. As commercial space ambitions continue growing toward daily launches and beyond, in-space 3D printing solutions will likely play an integral role in making them economical and achievable.

By Charles Goulding

Charles Goulding is the Founder and President of R&D Tax Savers, a New York-based firm dedicated to providing clients with quality R&D tax credits available to them. 3D printing carries business implications for companies working in the industry, for which R&D tax credits may be applicable.