When NASA brought an end to the space shuttle program in 2011, its fundamental mission also changed. No longer would NASA be actively involved in the same kind of space exploration that put the first man on the moon. Instead, the agency’s focus shifted to scientific research via the International Space Station combined with robotic probing of the outer reaches of our solar system.
NASA’s redefined mission did offer a silver lining: it gave birth to the commercial spacecraft industry; an industry now actively pursuing a full range of worthwhile missions including revisiting the moon, eventually establishing an outpost on Mars and, in the more immediate future, providing payload delivery to both the International Space Station and companies looking to place satellites in orbit. Composite materials are playing a significant role here.
Rockets Flying Faster and Higher
Given the fact that NASA already bridged the gap between rocket-propelled capsules and a fully functioning reusable space shuttle, it wouldn’t seem too difficult for the private sector to come up with rockets that could reach orbit. That hasn’t been the case. The commercial aerospace industry is not interested in doing things the way NASA did them because, quite frankly, it’s too expensive to make profitability viable.
Commercial aerospace has been left to develop their own technologies as a result. And they are getting there. Rocket Lab, a California company with additional operations in New Zealand, recently ran a test flight of its developmental orbital launch vehicle (essentially a new rocket) that successfully reached orbit. The rocket was able to deploy a customer payload in under 9 minutes following launch.
That kind of speed is critical to the success of commercial aerospace applications. Companies hoping to contract with aerospace enterprises like Rocket Lab are not really interested in investing in projects that are exceptionally time-consuming. They want on demand payload deployment that keeps pace with the speed of modern business.
So, how are composites helping? By providing the lightweight, strong materials aerospace companies demand. Composites are making it possible for rockets to fly faster and higher than ever before.
Composites Could Take Us to Mars
At Rock West Composites in Utah, customers can purchase things like carbon fiber tubing used in bicycle frames. The materials sold by Rock West constitute the latest in composite materials for a broad range of markets. Imagine some of those materials paving the way to a future where traveling to Mars is commonplace.
Routine travel to and from Mars is still generations in the future, most experts agree. But the development of new composite materials has scientists well on the way to accomplishing what was once inconceivable. Today’s composites are the foundation of future composite materials that will eventually take us to Mars.
The problem with Mars travel is distance. Even under the best conditions, getting from Earth to Mars would take years using our current technology. Building spacecraft that could make the journey while both sustaining life and having a significant enough payload capacity to make the trip worthwhile relies on lightweight materials that are strong enough to withstand the punishment of space. That’s where composites come in.
Steel and aluminum are just not conducive to the long-range goals of commercial aerospace. They are too heavy and not easily adaptable to the kinds of new designs required by long-range space travel. Composites are.
Composite materials are allowing rockets to fly faster and higher. They are helping commercial spacecraft hit new heights, both literally and figuratively. And as the future of composite materials unfolds, it will shape the future of commercial space travel.