When you think of space travel you probably think of high-tech rocket launchers, moon walks and billions of dollars in NASA research. But did you know that space travel wouldn’t be possible without fuels and petrochemicals? And I’m not just referring to the rocket fuel used to propel the rockets into outer space. Without petrochemicals, astronauts wouldn’t be able to survive the harsh environment of space. Here’s a quick look at some of the ways petrochemicals make space travel possible:
- Stronger Helmets and Visors: The helmets and visors that astronauts wear in space are made from polycarbonate, which is a high-tech polymer (that is, plastic) used in bullet-proof glass. Because of these plastics, astronauts are able to see their surroundings clearly without losing oxygen and they are protected from potentially dangerous and fast-moving space debris.
- High Tech Space Suits: Orbiting around the Earth, conditions can be as cold as minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade and as hot as 250 degrees in sunlight. Spacesuits protect astronauts from those extreme temperatures, while also supplying them with oxygen to breath and, like their helmets, protecting them from flying debris. Modern space suits are composed of 14 different layers of synthetic materials, most of which use petrochemicals as the primary building blocks. These layers do everything from allowing the suit to be fire resistant, to protecting from harmful radiation, to enhancing mobility and comfort.
- Space Shuttle Seating: The seats in a spaceship are for more than just lounging around. A space shuttle’s main landing gear touches down on the runway at about 214 to 226 MPH so you better hope those seats are soft. To counteract these hard landings, NASA developed temper foam (also used in your Memory Foam mattress!) to help blunt the impact of landings. This open-cell polyurethane-silicon plastic makes it easier for astronauts to travel into space, and back again without getting injured (and in relative comfort).
- The Spacecraft itself: Aluminum was always the primary material in the construction of spacecraft during the early days of the space program. However, aluminum does not adequately protect the spacecraft from dangerous cosmic radiation, which would make longer space travel and habitation impossible. However, studies found that plastics provide effective shielding against radiation hazards and could help reduce risks to astronauts while exploring the next frontiers of space. So keep an eye out for the next generation of plastics in the next generation of spacecraft.