SpaceX to build spacecraft parts with motion tech and 3D printers

Elon Musk's new endeavor to build rocket ship parts with Leap Motion hand gesture technology, Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets, and 3D laser metal printers makes sci-fi look antiquated.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
2 min read
SpaceX SuperDraco rocket chamber with cooling jacket emerges from 3D laser metal printer. SpaceX

A new initiative by SpaceX founder Elon Musk would make science fiction author Issac Asimov proud.

In a SpaceX YouTube video (see below), Musk describes how he's endeavoring to build new rocket ship parts using only hand and finger movements and a high-grade 3D laser metal printer. He won't use a typical desktop computer, he won't use a keyboard.

SpaceX is a private company founded by Musk in 2002; it designs, builds, and launches spacecrafts and rockets into low-Earth orbit. The company's goal is to one-day send humans into space so that they can live on other planets.

"At SpaceX, we love to play with cutting-edge technology and are always looking for ways to turn science fiction into reality," the SpaceX YouTube video description reads. "It not only advances our work, but it's also fun."

Using a handful of different futuristic tools, like the Leap Motion Controller, Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, and 3D laser metal printer, Musk explains that SpaceX can design and build Merlin rocket parts with far greater intuition and speed than when using typical computers.

In the video, Musk shows how he uses the Leap Motion Controller to work on a computer-aided design model of SpaceX's Merlin rocket engine. The Leap Motion Controller is a motion-sensor for computers that tracks users hands in 3D space. Using just hand gestures in the air, Musk grabs, rotates, zooms in and out, and moves the Merlin engine around on a computer screen.

Leap Motion CEO Michael Buckwald welcomes the idea of his company's technology being used for SpaceX initiatives.

"This is an incredibly exciting display of the Leap Motion's ability to transform design and creation on computers," Buckwald told CNET. "This is definitely one of the categories we are most passionate about."

In the video, Musk explains that once the Merlin engine is ready to come out of the computer and into reality, SpaceX will use a special 3D laser metal printer. To build the actual engine prototype, the printer will lay down fine layers of titanium while a laser melts those titanium particles to previous layers.

"I believe we are on the verge of a major breakthrough in design and manufacturing in being able to take the concept of something from your mind, translate that into a 3D object really intuitively on the computer, and then take that virtual 3D object and be able to make it real just by printing it," Musk said in the video. "It's going to revolutionize design and manufacturing in the 21st century."