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Mankind first set foot on the Moon in 1969; nearly five decades have now passed. Today, NASA is developing the Orion spacecraft that will launch astronauts back into lunar orbit, to the Moon’s surface and, if all goes as scheduled, to Mars. Protolabs is one of the companies making NASA’s dream journey a reality, providing sheet metal fabrication capabilities to Lockheed Martin, a major NASA contractor for this critical next step to the Moon.

Left: NASA is developing the Orion spaceship, including NASA’s Gateway port living quarters, as seen in this concept. Lockheed Martin is designing — and Protolabs is manufacturing — parts of the infrastructure of these living quarters. Right: The Habitat Ground Test Article is an earthbound model of the living quarters of the Gateway port, which is currently being developed at NASA in Florida.

Lockheed Martin is designing parts of the infrastructure that will support NASA’s Gateway, which will act as a spaceport orbiting the Moon. The work continues in a Florida building where the company is constructing an earthbound, full-sized physical model of the living quarters portion of the Gateway, called the Habitat Ground Test Article (HGTA). The space-based version of this module will provide a comfortable environment for astronauts on their long journey and is currently scheduled to launch in 2024. It will dock with another module that will generate power and propulsion, which will launch in 2022.

When traveling through the vastness of space, small but critical details like storage must be considered. “Protolabs needed to fabricate a key piece of secondary structure for the HGTA,” said Chris Cloutier, Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Programs prototype lead. “It’s the backbone that will hold both the scientific experiments and payloads needed to maintain the habitat.” Lockheed Martin visited Protolabs’ Nashua, NH facility to ensure that the company’s sheet metal fabrication capabilities were up to the task; the build began soon thereafter.

Several design considerations guided Lockheed Martin including factors like weight, strength, longevity, and safety. Weight is always important in space travel because excess weight means more fuel is needed to get off the ground and into space. Lightweight but strong aluminum proved the best material for this project. Protolabs’ framework had to be strong enough to hold heavy objects in place and survive the jostling inherent during a rocket launch. Cargo and experiments can’t tumble down from a storage rack mid-flight, so the system needed to be able to maintain its integrity when confronted with excessive g-forces.

Because a space-based habitat is expected to last for a long time, it was equally important to think of the future and overall longevity of the parts. “The parts that Protolabs created for this project will have to last for an entire generation — the lifetime of the project,” said Cloutier. “That means modularity is especially important so we can adapt the structure to meet tomorrow’s needs.” The storage area Lockheed Martin and Protolabs created can easily change configurations to accommodate today’s experiments or whatever might be needed in the future.

Finally, and arguably most important, is safety. Scratching yourself on a metal rack is one thing on Earth; imagine being 200,000 miles from Earth wearing a pressurized suit for a trip to the Moon or Mars. A cut from that same sharp edge could result in tragedy. To that end, Protolabs carefully crafted parts using techniques such as chamfering to eliminate sharp edges. Some parts also have complex bends, which Protolabs manufactured to tight specifications. When completed, the parts were shipped to Florida for what Cloutier referred to as “easy assembly.”

The Protolabs parts are now installed in the HGTA and Lockheed Martin’s designs are entering a test phase. NASA astronauts will soon experience the HGTA environment for themselves and help determine if the model they have created meets their needs and expectations. As part of the testing, they will be looking closely at the storage modules that Protolabs has fabricated.

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