Meet NCAM, the researchers helping NASA go “to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond”

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Meet NCAM, the researchers helping NASA go “to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond”

Before tools get to work and hardware launches, this research group helps NASA with R&D.




NASA Michoud: NCAM/Composite Development

Jennifer Hahn

MICHOUD, La.—Obviously, NASA’s novel plans for its Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion capsule require state of the art tools and engineering. But all those strategies, machines, and flight hardware don’t appear out of thin air. While much of NASA’s work is built on the shoulders of giants so to speak, they also find partners to continuously perform essential research and development.

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At the Michoud Assembly Facility outside of New Orleans, that means NCAM. The National Center for Advanced Manufacturing is a research-oriented partnership between NASA, the state of Louisiana, and local colleges and universities such as LSU and the University of New Orleans. At its essence, NCAM sits very nearly at the start of the facility’s SLS and Orion workflow. After all, before the most advanced tools at Michoud can be utilized and the best engineered materials can be implemented in NASA hardware, someone needs to do the thinking. Since 1999, this has been NCAM’s role—ideating, researching, and developing various tools and materials to help NASA continually improve its work (SLS and Orion included).

“All emerging tech finds itself going through the academic research process before it shows up in industry,” said John Vickers, NCAM’s manager and the associate director of the Marshall Space Flight Center’s materials and processes laboratory. “These machines are building products that will be on the Orion spacecraft to go to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond.”

When it comes to its focus, NCAM is given almost free reign. Their work can center on everything from flight hardware to testing processes to manufacturing tools (they’ve even examined Michoud’s famed friction-stir welding in the past). Vickers was in Michoud when Ars visited in late 2015, and he showed off NCAM’s work in particular with the site’s Automated Fiber Placement Machines. These are massive manufacturing tools (room sized, with maximum mandrel capacities of 40,000lbs-plus) that take a layer-by-layer approach to building composite structures. Like other big tools at Michoud, they work in a highly precise manner so that the output is infinitely reliable.Advertisement

“The eventual goal [for our composites] is 50 percent lighter to the metal equivalent,” Vickers said. “That’s significant added-capability to our exploration missions. It means we can send much, much more payload into space.”


Looks aside, NASA’s Orion is “lightyears ahead of what they had in Apollo”

The composites Vickers showed (seen in the video above) will eventually make their way to the Orion modules. He noted that launch vehicles today are mostly aluminum, but NCAM and NASA have watched closely as composites emerged in other aircrafts, in the defense market, and now slowly into the space industry. Compared to Apollo modules, such composites will allow Orion to have a much lighter skeleton. So even though the Orion EM-2 crew module is expected to have a launch weight of 22,900lbm (compared to 12,392 lbm for the Apollo 8 CSM), much of that added mass comes from system redundancies that will better prepare the module for both deep space exploration and unforeseen troubleshooting. Those precautions wouldn’t be

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