The relatively new industry of 3D printing is causing seismic shifts across several markets. This technology is not just the latest fad in the aircraft industry but an absolute must-have. This has been recognized and convincingly proven by two young engineers from Colorado University, Zachary Lesan and Patrick Watson, to make a 3D printed rocket turbopump.
Students Zachary Lesan and Patrick Watson from the Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at Colorado University (CU) Boulder have started an independent effort to create a metal 3D-printed rocket turbopump named the Reaper. Lesan, the project’s original leader, kicked things off in January of 2021 when he was a junior in college. Upon Lesan’s graduation and subsequent internship at SpaceX, Watson was brought in to take over most of the duties.
They designed and printed their 3D printed rocket turbopump using 3D printing technology. They improved fluid flow and overall performance by integrating several components using metal AM and including sophisticated internal channels. For instance, 3D printing might be used to meticulously build cooling channels, essential in rocket components due to the severe temperatures they must withstand.
Starting the creation of a 3D printed rocket turbopump
The manufacturing of the SpaceX Raptor engine relied heavily on Velo3D’s cutting-edge laser-powder-bed-fusion (LPBF) print capabilities. After Lesan reached out, the company’s vice president of global sales and business development, Zach Murphree, and director of technical sales, Gene Miller, discussed the project and offered their technology and services.
Lesan and Watson’s chance meeting at the CU Sounding Rocket Laboratory, where they found a mutual interest in turbomachinery, injected new life into the 3D printed rocket turbopump project. Lesan’s knowledge of design and production was augmented by Watson’s internship at Launcher, a Vast firm. According to what he overheard, “many companies cast their parts,” Watson claimed.
“3D metal printing (mostly LBPF) is a huge advance regarding turbomachinery needed for 3D printed rocket turbopump for space or energy. As a result, we can now employ machining more selectively while still printing the desired performance geometries, iterating designs, and obtaining the surfaces we require. We can now realize our vision thanks to metal 3D printing. Zach and I paid for anything that wasn’t free or heavily reduced using the money we earned as interns. Imagine us shelling out thousands of dollars to manufacture conventional parts or eliminate structural supports.”
Partnering with industry leaders
An early study on solid-state rockets as a youngster and data on turbopumps in hand since the 1960s prepared Lesan for the design work he was to do at CU Boulder. He had to devise his version of the MethaLOX, complete with high-tech metal AM, on his own. While Lesan and Watson did not expect a boost in performance, they did anticipate cost savings and increased dependability for 3D printed rocket turbopump. “We have eliminated so many potential traditional failure modes by minimizing part count,” remarked Lesan. Porosity and part verification are, thus, problems with AM. There were no quality-affecting mistakes in the process, as evidenced by our Velo3D build reports.
Professor John Farnsworth of CU Boulder and machinists Cameron Micksch and Paul Wingrove helped Lesan and Watson. Software, services, supplies, and direction came from the private sector. The two-person core team used Velo3D for metal printing, CFturbo for design software and ongoing support, Silicon Valley Elite Manufacturing for machining, and EMP for assembly. Instruments from Kulite and Omega and Seals by Gallagher Fluid Seals were also purchased.
Interning companies SpaceX and Launcher and engineers from Ursa Major and Andrew Mitchell (formerly of Masten Space Systems and currently at Astrobotic) provided informal guidance. Lesan joins the Space Force as a second lieutenant after completing his internship with SpaceX. Watson is nearing the end of his college studies, and upon graduation, he will begin working for Launcher Space, a company under the Vast Empire after this innovative 3D printed rocket turbopump.
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