This Is Plastics: Plastics Define the New Era of Space Travel


Plastics Define the New Era of Space Travel

Synthetic fibers and durable plastic polymers are vital to upgrades in space suits and spacecraft.


The commercial space industry is predicted to be valued at $2.7 trillion over the next 30 years. With more people and businesses interested in space travel, safety and affordability have come to the forefront—and plastics are making it all happen. While synthetic fibers and durable plastic polymers have become vital to upgrades in space suits and spacecraft, plastic is also making the industry more economical and environmentally friendly.

Plastic protects space travelers

Plastics are revolutionizing space suits to allow more people to safely experience space travel. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the spacesuit has not been fully revamped in nearly 50 years. However, as part of the upcoming Artemis Mission to the moon in 2024, NASA unveiled a new prototype for its spacesuit, which relies on heavy duty, flexible synthetic fibers like Kevlar, which is made out of poly-para-phenylene terephthalamide. This material protects the wearer from harmful cosmic rays that carry dangerously high levels of radiation that can cause cancer. Gloves, which have been a particularly tricky part of the space suit, are also being designed with Kevlar fabric to boost mobility and dexterity for those visiting space.

Space suits are becoming so advanced that synthetic fabrics are now being used to mimic movement on Earth to prevent loss of muscle or physiological function while travelers are in space. The Gravity Loading Countermeasure Skinsuit, developed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, utilizes highly elastic synthetic fibers, like polyethylene terephthalate and polytrimethylene terephthalate, to mimic the effects of gravity. This has allowed for longer-term space travel and increased assurances that travelers will experience fewer impacts upon their return to Earth.

Aeronautical engineers and space designers are also relying on plastics and plastic polymers to create more complex astronaut suits, or extravehicular mobility suits. Durable and reliable plastic components, like tubes and valves, are ensuring that visitors and space explorers can safely and easily access oxygen and regulate their suit temperature when they are outside of their spacecraft. Visors and helmets that are made out of thick plastic materials are also able to withstand the harshness of space and reduce the potential for space debris to scratch lenses and reduce visibility, while also being lighter for the wearer. By using more plastic, designers are able to produce space suits that increase safety, mobility, and comfort.

Plastics ring in a new age of spacecraft

While synthetic plastic fibers are keeping space travelers safe, plastic polymers are also improving the spacecraft that safely hold and carry passengers. According to the American Geophysical Union (AGU), plastic is more often replacing traditionally used aluminum due to its lightweight and durable qualities. NASA is also relying more on polyethylene, a plastic polymer that is rich in hydrogen, because it can reduce the impacts of solar rays by up to 50% compared to traditionally used products like aluminum. This helps keep travelers safe while they are in transit and reduce health risks once they return to Earth.

The same durable, scratch resistant plastic material used in helmet lenses and visors is also used for portals and windows on a spacecraft to reduce damage and increase visibility even over time. Furthermore, plastic is lighter than traditionally used aluminum and other metals, which makes spacecraft lighter and more mobile. With plastics, space travel can be safe for everyone.

Space travel is more economical and efficient with lightweight and affordable plastics

With the use of more plastic in spacecraft and space suits, expeditions are becoming more environmentally friendly due to weight reductions and fuel efficiency. Plastic is far lighter than traditionally used metals, and as spacecraft become lighter, they require less fuel to propel them off of the ground and through the atmosphere. Once in space, lighter spacecraft has conserve fuel, which can increase the length of expeditions and create new opportunities for exploration. On land, lighter spacecraft are also easily to maneuver and store.

While space travel is still extremely expensive, more affordable plastic polymers used in spacecraft in spacesuits are already reducing costs. In 2022, a 10-day mission to the International Space Station aboard SpaceX’s Dragon Capsule will cost about $55 million. However, more affordable missions aboard orbital flights offered by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin cost between $250,000 and $500,000. While this is still a steep price, the increased use of plastics is making missions more affordable for everyone. As innovation continues, space companies are looking to make space travel affordable for all.

Plastics is critical to the safety of space travelers. It is also vital to making spacecraft more durable and lighter, which is leading to greater fuel efficiency. As space exploration continues to push limits, plastic’s functional role on spacecraft and in space equipment will become increasingly essential to progress.

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