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How Composites Are Powering NASA Trips To The Red Planet

How Composites Are Powering NASA Trips To The Red Planet-min

From the late 1950’s and continuing beyond Neil Armstrong’s triumphant first step on the moon in 1969, the space race captivated the world. For the first time in history, the possibility of reaching celestial bodies outside our own loomed on the horizon. The fever began to build and reach historic proportions as we tested the limits of our own ingenuity and bravery. Fast forward to 2017, and the excitement around space travel has resurged in full force.

The target is no longer orbit itself or the moon; this time we are going to Mars. To support this mission, NASA has launched the Orion program. The Orion spacecraft is an exploration vehicle designed to take humans deeper into space than ever before. This revolutionary vehicle will launch from the SLS (Space Launch System) rocket and carry astronauts to places like Mars.
While exciting, this mission is easier said than done. Launching anything (but particularly humans) into space is no mean feat, and probing the depths of the solar system requires significant time and expense. Spacecrafts need materials that can withstand incredible temperature fluctuations, pressures, and even nuclear radiation. That is why NASA is turning to composite manufacturers for Orion.

Composites have the durability to handle all these conditions and are often much lighter than their competition. When building the first Unmanned Test Flight ETF-1 for the Orion program, which orbited Earth in 2014, NASA reached out to San Diego Composites (SDC) for over 1000 separate parts.

NASA initially assigned SDC to create parts like CRFP angel brackets. Ken Mercer explains, “This was a very small part, but we were lucky enough that they have trusted us with larger parts ever since.” And boy did they ever! NASA eventually decided to award several critical pieces of the LAS (Launch Abort System) to SDC. Due to their massive sizes, SDC has even begun building bridges over the molds so that workers can prepreg with laser projection systems!

The LAS immediately separates from the rest of the payload should anything go wrong during launch. The LAS is nearly 53 feet long and is broken into 3 separate parts: the fillet, the AM adapter structure, and the Ogive. SDC created a co-bonded honeycomb structure for the fillet that was over 10 feet long and 8 feet in diameter. Mercer says creating this piece was a challenge: “The first ply down is a lightning strike material,” he says. “The curvatures of the Fillet are such that the copper mesh material is a challenge to put down. We’ve developed techniques over the years to avoid wrinkles and potential damage to that very sensitive material.”

As work on further spacecraft for Mars and other exploration continue, you can be sure that NASA will continue to rely on composite companies like SDC to help build the groundbreaking vehicles that will ferry humans across the galaxy. Composites are uniquely well suited for NASA because they can handle the volatility of space. Composites are the wave of the future, and you can bet that we will continue to find more uses for these exciting materials.

MVP is proud to help support the composites industry and help make innovative products and solutions that make missions like space travel possible. If you are interested in learning more about how we could support your company, contact us here.

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