High-tech rockets, expensive propellants and billions of dollars in research aren’t the only things that have advanced space exploration. Plastic materials have played a vital role throughout the history of spaceflight, allowing astronauts to view their surroundings, breathe oxygen and travel comfortably in orbit around the earth, or on the way to the moon. Without plastics, space exploration would not be where it is today.
Stronger Helmets & Visors
When you think of the first astronauts to visit the moon, images of puffy space suits and large helmets with shiny visors probably come to mind. Those helmets and visors were made from molded plastic materials capable of withstanding the harshness of space. Because of these plastics, astronauts were able to see their surroundings in clarity without the loss of oxygen or debris infiltrating their suits. Much of the protective gear those astronauts wore was also made from plastic, because of its flexibility and reliable functionality.
Softer Spacecraft Seating
In order to blunt the impact of landings, NASA developed temper foam, also known as memory foam, for spacecraft seating. This open cell polyurethane-silicon plastic made it easier for astronauts to travel to and from space without getting injured or feeling uncomfortable upon re-entry. It’s now used in mattresses and high-end furniture to make it easier for people to sleep, relax and unwind. The protective qualities of plastic make it one of the most useful materials for facilitating spaceflight and exploration.
Better Radiation Protection
According to Before Its News, aluminum was used heavily in the construction of spacecraft during the early days of the space program. However, aluminum doesn’t have the same shielding and protective capabilities that certain plastics do when it comes to blocking cosmic radiation. This radiation is a major obstacle for prolonged spaceflight and habitation. Plastics have helped scientists create short- and medium-term solutions that protect astronauts from harmful rays. The net benefit of plastic components is safer space travel, with astronauts in orbit for longer periods of time.
Space is full of debris that can make seeing through spacecraft portals and spacesuit helmets difficult. That is why scratch resistant lenses are so important to space travel. Plastic coating is used to make lenses scratch resistant, including astronauts’ visors. Without reliable ways to view their surroundings, astronauts would be at a serious disadvantage, which is why plastics have been used in such high frequency in the design of portals, windows and helmet visors.
Plastics are often lighter than other materials that would otherwise be used to make spacecraft. The use of lighter materials makes getting rockets and spacecraft off the ground more cost-effective and efficient. Rocket fuel is also highly volatile, meaning the less of it onboard a spacecraft the better for all stakeholders in a space mission. Plastic seals, flooring, seating and instrumentation panels are among the plastic components that have made spacecraft lighter and more nimble. Lighter spacecraft are also easier to move and store, which is a major cost savings for spaceflight agencies. The monetary and safety benefits yielded by plastics are hard to ignore, which is why NASA and other space agencies have leveraged plastics to the hilt.
Plastics have been integral in the development of the tools, equipment and transportation needed to explore space. As governmental agencies and private companies continue to push the boundaries of space travel, plastics will continue to enable mankind to make new strides in the depths of space.
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