INSIGHT: Chemicals industry marks role in Moon landing

20 July 2009 09:57  [Source: ICIS news]

By Nigel Davis

Neil Armstrong on the MoonLONDON (ICIS news)--It was one small step for Neil Armstrong 40 years ago on Monday and another small step for the world of chemicals as the Apollo 11 astronaut ventured onto the lunar surface.

Mission Commander Neil Armstrong and his Lunar Module pilot, Buzz Aldrin, landed on the Moon’s surface at 16:17 New York time (20:17 GMT) on 20 July 1969, leaving their Apollo 11 companion Michael Collins in the orbiting Command Module.

Neil Armstrong took his first step on the lunar surface six hours later.

The science of chemistry and the chemical industry supplied many of the materials that made the Apollo 11 mission and, indeed, all space flight, possible.

New and not-so-new materials powered and protected the spacecraft and cocooned the astronauts as the Apollo programme fulfilled President Kennedy’s pledge in 1961 to send a man safely to the Moon by the end of the decade.

Hydrogen powered the giant Saturn V rockets of the Apollo programme; oxygen provided the vital “spark” during launch and sustained life in space.

The lunar module was a surprisingly flimsy, cramped vehicle protected with polyethylene terephthalate (PET) Mylar film.

DuPont provided that film and a range of other fibres and plastics for the mission and for many others. Its relationship with NASA goes back 50 years.

On Apollo missions to the Moon, 20 of the 21 layers in each space suit were made with DuPont materials, the company said, including Mylar, spandex, nylon, neoprene and the its Kapton temperature resistant polymide film.

Flame-resistant Nomex aramid fibre was woven into the flight overalls worn by Apollo 11 astronauts.

Not surprisingly, the materials - although sounding exotic - were mostly well tried and tested.

Now well-known, Teflon (polytetrafluoroethylene), had been discovered in 1938. The astronauts’ space suits in 1969 were largely made from fibre glass and Teflon.

The lunar boots, donned prior to lunar surface activity, provided thermal and abrasion protection for the pressure garment assembly boots during lunar surface operations. The outer layer of a lunar boot, except for the sole, was fabricated from Chromel-R (woven steel) and the tongue area was made of Teflon-coated Beta cloth.

Teflon also went into blankets, heat shields, insulation and cargo hold liners used in the moon landing.

Today, DuPont continues to provide NASA with high strength materials, the sort of products it sells to the military and into the aerospace industry.

DuPont signed an agreement with NASA in December 2007 to jointly develop urethane foam insulation reinforced with DuPont’s Kevlar fibre for use in future spacecraft.

In addition, DuPont materials have gone into Mars Exploration Rovers, connecting the “brains” of the rovers to robotic arms, cameras, high-gain antennae, wheels and sensors.

Companies like Air Products and Air Liquide provide the agency with the gases needed for missions into Earth orbit and beyond.

Pushing the boundaries in space exploration is achieved using high-performance laminates and composites, shape memory polymers and even humble polyurethanes.

The materials revolution fuelled the space race in the 1950s,’60s and ‘70s.

Its products underpin the exploration of new worlds and the breaching of new frontiers.

Titanium metal (produced from ore using chlorine chemistry) is used extensively in the aerospace industry to lighten air and spacecraft, according to the American Chemistry Council (ACC).

High-speed integrated circuit (VHSIC) chips etched with chlorine chemicals, silicone seals derived from chlorine chemistry and sensors deposited on ultra pure silicon are some of the other chemical-related products that benefit space travel, the ACC said.

When the Mars Rovers bounced to their landings, they were protected by multi-balloon landing systems of specially formulated polymer plastics, according to the ACC.

Plastics are also used to make polycarbonate face shields, recycle water, protect dehydrated foods and liquids in lightweight pouches, and even provided the material in the flag that was planted on the Moon.

Additional reporting by Ben DuBose and Joe Kamalick

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By: Nigel Davis
+44 20 8652 3214

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