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Tap into the experiences of NASA’s technical workforce as they develop missions to explore distant worlds—from the Moon to Mars, from Titan to Psyche. Learn how they advance technology to make aviation on Earth faster, quieter and more fuel efficient. Each biweekly episode celebrates program and project managers, engineers, scientists and thought leaders working on multiple fronts to advance aeronautics and space exploration in a bold new era of discovery. New episodes are released bi-weekly on Wednesdays. 

Dive deep into the world of in-space manufacturing (ISM) with our guest, Zach Courtright, the In-Space Manufacturing Portfolio Manager at NASA. Zach shares his perspectives on cutting-edge advancements and collaborations in the field and the potential of the technology for game-changing impacts on space exploration and resource utilization.

In this episode, we explore the world of in-space manufacturing (ISM) with Zach Courtright, the In-Space Manufacturing Portfolio Manager at NASA. Zach provides an overview of ISM and its practical applications, including examples of ongoing projects. We’ll discuss groundbreaking advancements, and how they could help NASA achieve its broader goals in space exploration. We’ll also cover the potential of ISM to revolutionize spacecraft design and gear production.

In this episode, you’ll learn about:

  • In-Space Manufacturing (ISM) and its applications in space and on non-terrestrial bodies, including in the controlled environments on the International Space Station (ISS) and in open space, where extreme temperatures and vacuum conditions are formidable challenges.
  • How NASA is actively working on three primary technology areas within ISM: electronics printing, welding, and recycling.
  • The potential of ISM to change future NASA missions by enabling critical repairs in space, creating infrastructure autonomously, and reducing dependence on Earth for resupply.
  • How designing for manufacturability and repairability is crucial for future spacecraft and equipment, allowing for on-demand production of spare parts and efficient use of resources.
  • How ISM also has the potential to advance sustainability on Earth, particularly in remote locations or for disaster relief, where mass-energy and volume-efficient systems can be deployed to produce essential parts and components.

Related Resources:  

Mentors: NASA Center Resources and Activities

Small Steps, Giant Leaps Episode 115: NASA Trade & Technical Professionals, Part 1

Critical Comparison of Spherical Microindentation, Small Punch Test, and Uniaxial Tensile Testing for Selective Laser Melted Inconel 718

Effects of Mars Atmosphere on Arc Welds: Phase 2

APPEL Courses:

Fundamentals of Systems Engineering (APPEL-vFSE)

Team Membership (APPEL-vTM)

Foundations of Aerospace at NASA (APPEL-vFOU)


Zach Courtright Photo Credit: Zach Courtright

Zach Courtright
Photo Credit: Zach Courtright

Zach Courtright has eight years of experience at NASA, where he serves as the In-Space Manufacturing Portfolio Manager, overseeing projects focused on developing manufacturing processes for use in space. He is in part-time pursuit of a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Materials Science and Engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology, specializing in high-throughput mechanical testing, Machine Learning, and Structure-Property linkages. Additionally, Zach also earned a Bachelor and Master of Science in Welding Engineering from The Ohio State University, where he studied various joining technologies and gained expertise in metallurgy, corrosion, and polymer science.



Teresa Carey (Host): Welcome to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, your window into the world of knowledge and innovation at NASA. I’m Teresa Carey. Let’s explore together.

Okay, buckle up because we are about to embark on a voyage into the exciting realm of in-space manufacturing, or ISM, think welding in the vacuum of space, 3D printing in zero gravity and crafting objects using found materials. I have to admit, I’m imagining astronauts scooping up resources from the moon or a passing asteroid to create something entirely new and functional. We may not have fully realized this vision yet, but in-space manufacturing possesses the potential to revolutionize our approach to space exploration.

Today we have an opportunity to dive deeper into this subject, and I couldn’t be more excited. That’s why we reached out to Zach Courtright, the in-space manufacturing portfolio manager at NASA. He’ll help us uncover the mysteries and possibilities that ISM holds for the future of space exploration and the professional growth and determination it takes to get there. Zach, thanks so much for doing this with me today.

Zach Courtright: Thank you so much for having me, Teresa.

Host: I wanted to start with a broad question, what is In-Space Manufacturing, or ISM, in a nutshell? And can you help us understand the practical side of it by sharing some examples of what you’re currently working on?

Courtright: The way I see it is it’s pretty simple. I mean, it’s pretty much the ability to perform manufacturing processes in space or on non-terrestrial bodies. I mean, that seems pretty obvious, in-space manufacturing, manufacturing in space.

Beyond that, it’s also the ability to manufacture in space in both controlled environments, which would be something like a small unit that is actually sitting on the ISS or in a transit vehicle or in a habitat that is controlled and has specific temperature and pressure environments to help replicate whatever temperature and pressure environments are necessary to perform the manufacturing process. And then the complete other side of it is the open space environments’ aspect. So you have a welding rig or something, but you want to be able to assemble and weld together or additive manufacture a very large structure out in-space or on the lunar surface, you would need to be able to go outside of just a small controlled box and be able to take advantage of the large open space. But at the same time, I mean that means you’re going to be exposed to a hard vacuum, extreme temperature fluctuations. So you may have to control it a little bit. So for the case of welding, that may be an open system, but it still has a heat shield or something to be able to regulate.

The other half of the question is, examples of current projects, things like that in the field, our five-year goal is to develop three primary technology areas. One is electronics printing, one is welding, and the third is recycling. So electronics printing could be for printing electronic components like machine sensors for NASA’s mission architecture, so that’s like NASA’s Moon to Mars mission architecture to be able to support our needs. And the other side of electronics is printing electronics, say on the ISS or in low earth orbit and taking advantage of that microgravity environment to print more idealized electronics or things like semiconductors with fewer defects or potentially even higher performance and bring them back down to earth for use.

And then welding is… The reason why we look at welding is because welding is so critical in manufacturing on earth. I mean 80, 90% of any manufacturing processes across automotive, medical, aerospace industries requires welding somewhere along the lines. So welding is a really, really important capability for assembling large structures or performing repairs. But also, the really cool thing about welding is it has a lot of the same physics that additive manufacturing requires. So, if you can develop a process to weld, all of that information is extensible to different additive manufacturing processes.

And the third area is recycling. One reason why that’s so critical is because once we’re going out there into space, a big aspect of ISM is sustainability, so why not figure out a way to recycle and reuse the different materials that you have up there once you get to the lunar surface, like say you’ve extracted some junk metal out of regolith that’s just in pellets or something, but then you need to extrude that and to process it into a wire, a lot of the same types of technologies developed under recycling could be applied there.

Host: Wow, it all sounds really exciting and like you have a lot on your plate right now. Over the course of your career. I’m sure you’ve maybe witnessed some remarkable advancements in this field of in-space manufacturing. Could you tell me about a time or a moment when you’ve witnessed or experienced or learned about a particularly exciting breakthrfor meough and what’s the story behind it? How does it fit into the broader goals of space exploration?

Courtright: So, I’ll say in-space manufacturing has been a major portfolio at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center for over 10 years now. Some of these historical things happened before my time, but I still was a part of NASA to take a pleasure in the accomplishments of in-space manufacturing.

So one that sticks out to me is polymer additive manufacturing, the ability to put a polymer printer onto the ISS and then be able to print different things like a multi-tool that can basically be a wrench, a screwdriver, all at the same time. And then in addition to that, being able to print things that may be spare parts or something that can help somebody. And in the case of something like the Apollo 13 mission where they needed to fit a square peg into a round hole or whatever, luckily, they were able to figure something out and a way to make it work. But if you were on a long duration mission and you had this polymer printing capability and you could print a custom square to round hole transition piece, then you could theoretically be saving lives and saving mission success. What it really comes down to is that having this capability on the ISS was a demonstration of the ability to advance the technology readiness level and really display the relevance of an in-space manufacturing process.

Host: And it sounds like it was an important moment for you as well in terms of your motivation and your career.

Courtright: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I would say for me, my biggest personal motivation was I got a bachelor’s and master’s degree in welding engineering. So welding is… All in for welding. And back in 2019, before I had taken this role, I was a welding engineer full time at Marshall Space Flight Center, and I was able to participate in projects related, or basically lay the groundwork to start in-space laser welding development.

Host: Zach, as you were saying a minute ago, in-space manufacturing could really be a game changer for space exploration. It could allow us to create these vital components during missions and potentially overcome constraints due to size or space. Could you describe a scenario for us where ISM could step up to the plate and change a mission’s success, maybe even a hypothetical one, and while we’re at it, how might this change up the way we design spacecraft and gear in the future?

Courtright: Okay. Yeah, that’s definitely a great question. So the lunar surface is days away. So if you are on a mission, you’re on a lunar surface and something goes wrong and you need to be able to produce something right then and there, I would call that critical repairs. Being able to repair something and be agile without being dependent on resupply from Earth that may not be logistically possible. And of course all of that becomes massively compounded when you talk about Martian missions where you’re months away from earth.

So on the other side of critical repairs is the autonomous manufacturing of large infrastructure. And this really becomes critically important when we’re talking about missions to Mars where you could send a payload there ahead of time, get it to begin setting up and manufacturing a habitat structure or outfitting a habitat structure, and then at the same time, you could also be, while you’re on your mission, producing something outside of your transit hab to expand habitat space. So, once you get into Martian orbit, you have a larger orbiter basically. Those are just ideas off the top of my head, but that’s some of the potential.

Now you said, how would this impact equipment design? So that is an excellent question. A very, very smart question, because that’s a true problem. Right now, everything’s designed for one-time use and just modular… Even life support systems, they’re modular, but each module is like an assembly of other components. So when something goes wrong, you pull the entire module out and 90% of that is just… I mean, it’s a lot of waste where you could theoretically be able to harvest and reuse some of that material. And if you’re talking about life support systems, which are extremely hard to design, if we got to a point where we were designing for manufacturability instead of having one single module, we would have little components that could pop out that you could go and 3D print a new one and put it in, really designing for manufacturability and repairability is something that needs to happen at the very beginning of the process and needs to be considered all the way through to the end.

Host: So, you could take a broken part and recycle the materials from it to create a brand-new replacement part?

Courtright: Yeah, that’s one option. There’s even other options, like say you have an impeller or some part that’s subjected to a decent amount of fatigue that has wear surfaces, you can think about the transmission in your car and your clutch slipping, that’s that wear component becoming worn down enough that it doesn’t maintain contact. So with an ECLSS system, you could pull out that component, an ECLSS is a life support system for those who are listening, you could pull out that component and then even rather than just crushing it down or grinding it up and recycling it, you could theoretically clean it off, put it into a printer, and be able to print back onto that base structure, the wearable aspects.

Host: So, you could build up those parts that are worn down back to what they used to be.

Courtright: That’s one area where this could be applied and would be extremely valuable.

Host: All right, so looking ahead, Zach, what are your expectations and aspirations for the future of in-space manufacturing and are there any upcoming projects or initiatives within the ISM portfolio that you’re excited about?

Courtright: I mean, I’ll be honest, I’m excited about the concept of ISM and developing lunar sustainability is a big one that really reverberates with me and gets me very excited. One of the things that gets me the most excited is the concept of being able to get a welder on a robot arm on the lunar surface and demonstrate that technology, advance the technology readiness level and be able to not just have this mission that you send up there, it does the demonstration that’s cool, but actually something that you take and can reuse. It’s a welder. It’s up there, it’s ready for you when your astronauts are up there or need it. But also if you wanted to, you could say, “Hey, let’s send a follow-on mission. Let’s send up a couple components that you add to the machine or some other wire or feedstock or something and turn it into an additive manufacturing setup,” which would be… I mean, that would just be extremely cool and I think a lot of people would get very excited about that.

And that whole concept leads to lunar sustainability. If you can print with wire on a lunar surface, then eventually you can utilize the regolith to be able to refine metals and produce wire on the lunar surface that can then be 3D printed. And that’s kind of that turning point where we get to lunar sustainability, which in all honesty is one of the most exciting things. But of course, we always have this challenge of finding the near-term tech pool. If you talk to different stakeholders, they’ll say, “Yeah, of course we want in-space manufacturing, but we want it in 10 years.” And it’s always this challenge of like, “Well, if we want it in 10 years and it takes 10 years to develop the technology we need to be investing now,” but then finding out what to invest in is a critical challenge, but it’s also an exciting challenge. And honestly, we’re going to stop at nothing to figure out a way to make this happen.

Host: Yeah, I mean that long-term planning and looking ahead is hard for everybody in any situation to know what to prioritize now to be prepared for 10 years 20 years from now.

Courtright: Exactly.

Host: You were just talking about recycling materials and making new things from it, and I can’t help but think about how in-space manufacturing might change the way we use resources both in space but perhaps also here on earth. And I wonder if you think about this too, is there a connection between what we learn from ISM and how it can help us be more sustainable in our resource use on our own planet and vice versa?

Courtright: Personally, I love that question. It’s an excellent question. So, I want to go into my example of say, what about the lunar surface? You get there, there’s nothing. There’s regolith and a bunch of lunar dirt and rocks, and that’s what you’ve got to deal with. So, if you want to be sustainable, you have to be able to figure out a way to utilize every possible resource out of that regolith. That could be silicon, aluminum, other different metals, even some iron. So being able to utilize the resources is critical to sustainability. So, all that being said, to develop that, the ability to utilize those resources, you had to design your stuff where you need mass-energy and volume efficiency.

Now, what do you think of when you think mass-energy and volume efficiency? When you’re out in a remote area on earth like Antarctica or a disaster relief scenario where Puerto Rico years ago got hit by a horrible hurricane, imagine if when that happened you were able to take a deployable mass-energy and volume efficient system that could stand alone and you’re able to deploy it right there and then that can produce spare parts that you may need. So if you have the ability to print a part on demand and even a custom part that you may not even know, it may not be an actual part that exists anywhere, it’s something that you created right there and then to solve a near term need, having that ability could help drastically help disaster relief scenarios. And also, like I said, remote areas, like if you’re in Antarctica or if you’re in a community that’s very remote, having a mass-volume and energy efficient system could be very valuable.

And then lastly, another application is military applications where you really are out there in those extremely remote scenarios where having the ability to produce a part, a spare part, which could be anything, I mean just survivability is the key when you’re out there in the middle of the desert, so being able to produce parts on demand with a system that can easily be placed and is volume efficient, so efficient that it could literally be launched to the lunar surface, that has a lot of applications for sustainability on earth.

And one more thing is the recycling aspect. You mentioned recycling, and if we want to achieve sustainability, we have to go further and advance recycling further. And by taking literally the most challenging scenario you can imagine on the lunar surface where it’s extremely harsh environment, it costs $1.1 million or more per kilogram to ship mass up to the lunar surface, you need to be extremely efficient. So being able to determine how to make a system that’s so efficient that it pays for itself very quickly and the amount of output it can produce with respect to recycling, having that type of capability on the earth would also lead to greater sustainability.

Host: Let’s talk about professional development in your job. Professional development is essential for anyone in a field that’s rapidly changing and evolving, like space technology. So, what strategies or habits do you have, do you follow to stay up to date with the latest advancements and to continuously improve your skills?

Courtright: That’s an excellent question, I like the way you phrased it. Lifelong learning, that’s one of the first things I learned when I came to NASA was lifelong learning. You have to do it. In my opinion, everybody should adopt it. It doesn’t matter, your education, your intelligence level, none of that matters. Just try to learn something new every day. And believe it or not, that goes a lot further than you would think. And in my field where you need to learn advanced sciences and advanced engineering techniques going on to get graduate degrees or certifications is great and going to take APPEL training courses, all of those things are excellent ways to network and advance your skills. But that’s all within NASA and maybe a little bit of academia.

But if you really want to get that cutting edge state-of-the-art influence and understanding of where industry is and where other large organizations are with respect to specific in-space manufacturing technology or space technology, going to conferences is absolutely critical. You’re in a group of people that are very, very focused on in-space manufacturing type technologies, so you get to learn a small community that is really representative of people all around the world.

And then really just listen to your collaborators, listen to the partners you have, listen to your NASA internal collaborators, listen to the NASA decision makers. Congress provides us with a lot of our direction. So you have to stay connected with the NASA decision makers that know the latest in the direction, and then find a way to tie in, for me, the in-space manufacturing direction and strategy into the overarching mission and find ways to develop the technologies that fit within that mission. That’s always a challenge, but if you want to stay relevant, you want to stay updated, you have to listen. End all, be all, you have to listen.

Host: And along the same lines, mentorship can be incredibly valuable for personal and professional growth. Have there been any mentors or role models who’ve had a significant impact on your career? And if so, what advice or lessons did they give you that you found particularly valuable?

Courtright: Yes, I’ve had a lot of mentors throughout my year. I mean, I’ve had prior supervisors. My old supervisor, Ron Jones, was a good mentor. I learned a lot of different things from him. I’ve had a couple of specific mentors that I sought out. One was Erin Richardson, she works in the Materials and Process Lab at Marshall Space Flight Center. And more recently I have another mentor, Jeremy Broadway, and he works in the director’s office at Marshall Space Flight Center.

So one of the biggest things that these mentors have taught me is always do the best in your current position. So a lot of people, they get clouded by the concept of, “Oh, I really want to do that. I really want to do this.” And they forget that it’s, what people are judging you by today, and I mean, judging is a harsh word, but it’s the reality we live in, they’re judging based upon the performance that you have in your current position. So if you do really well in your current position, that will actually enable you to go further into the area that you want to go into.

Another thing that I’ve learned from my mentors was to plan for the future you envision. So plan for what you want to be and where you want to be, and just always have a plan, but at the same time, remain agile. And one thing that I don’t know if everybody would agree with, but I certainly have found a lot of value, when you select a mentor, look for somebody that, personally, that you look up to, somebody that you see as kind of a hero or somebody who’s done great things that you can learn from. But also it’s important to make sure that they actually have a strategic benefit to your desired path. The mentor-mentee relationship is not one way, it’s supposed to benefit both. So find ways that you can benefit them and then also make sure that they are somebody that you really want to learn to and that the knowledge they bestow is going to help you down the path you so desire.

Host: Yeah, that’s really good advice to think about it as a two-way street because a lot of times we don’t think about mentorship that way.

Courtright: Yeah, yeah, definitely.

Host: Your work in the field of space technology and manufacturing is no doubt challenging and requires a lot of dedication, so what motivates you personally to continue pursuing this work and what keeps you inspired to overcome challenges or setbacks in your field?

Courtright: I love manufacturing. I mean, I’m guilty, I definitely… I love it. Finding a way to take a cutting-edge manufacturing process and apply it to a legitimate space flight hardware scenario, that’s the holy grail of what is inspirational and motivating for me personally. But if I’m going back all the way to when I was a kid, when I was in seventh grade I sent a letter to NASA saying, “I will work for you.” And my parents somehow saved it. I don’t know if it ever made it to NASA, but it’s one of those things that I look back on and I think about and I’m like, man, I wanted this all the way since I was a little kid, back then. And even today, I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut, that helps to keep me inspired.

It’s, look at what people have achieved. It wasn’t just being an astronaut. They did so many great things beforehand. Working for NASA is a unique scenario where you’re not motivated by profits, you’re motivated by making something that is going to inspire the next generation and enable humanity to be able to sustainably explore and gain greater knowledge. In all honesty, part of what makes it so exciting because the impact you make could be so valuable that in a hundred years our great grandchildren could be doing something that if you hadn’t had done that, it just would not be a viable future. It wouldn’t be an option. And then lastly, honestly, I truly believe in-space manufacturing. I believe that that is one of the key pieces of the puzzle to get us to sustainability.

Host: Yeah, I love your answer. It’s really exciting and inspiring, and I can just picture young Zach dreaming about working at NASA and now here you are. Congratulations, that’s awesome.

Courtright: Thank you. I’m definitely very excited to be here. Honestly, it’s like a dream come true waking up and getting to work on in-space manufacturing, that’s a subset of NASA type research that I definitely didn’t know about it when I was in seventh grade, but it’s just over time you realize, “Hey, manufacturing’s really cool, and I really like metallurgy,” and take the most complicated metallurgy and manufacturing problem you can pretty much imagine, and then try to solve it and it’s exciting.

Host: Well, I’m hooked. So, the next time you have something to say about in-space manufacturing, just keep me posted and we’ll have you back on the show again.

Courtright: That sounds great.

Host: Thanks for doing this with me today, Zach.

Courtright: Oh, no problem. Thanks for having me, Teresa.

Host: Small Steps, Giant Leaps is a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast. Our mission is simple, to introduce you to the remarkable individuals behind NASA’s incredible discoveries. So for a transcript of the show and more information on Zach Courtright and these topics, simply head over to our resources page at That’s spelled And while you’re there, if you’re curious to learn more about what APPEL Knowledge Services has to offer, don’t forget to explore our publications and courses. I’m Teresa Carey, your crew mate, in the world of learning. That’s all we have for today, may your steps towards knowledge be both small and mighty.