Aluminum Goes to Mars

NASA’s Grotzinger on the Essential Element for Space Travel

“NASA could not have made it to the surface of Mars without aluminum.” So says Dr. John Grotzinger Chief Scientist and Head of Strategic Planning for the 2012 Mars Rover Mission. Grotzinger led NASA’s $2.5 billion Curiosity rover mission – perhaps the most visible mission in the history of robotic space exploration in its search for evidence of past life on the surface of the red planet. He made his remarks about aluminum during the Aluminum Association’s 2014 spring meeting in San Antonio, TX.

Lightweight, durable and extraordinarily strong, space age aluminum alloys were the best choice to build the body and wheels of the nine-foot-long, 1,875-pound Curiosity rover robot. Like a car body, the rover’s aluminum shell is a strong outer layer that keeps the vehicle’s vital and sensitive electronics protected and temperature controlled.

“NASA could not have made it to the surface of Mars without aluminum.”

Explained Grotzinger (pictured left), the mission itself had zero-margin for error with the nearest mechanic more than 50 million miles away. “If at first you don’t succeed –don’t try again. Find the root cause of failure, then try again,” he said.

The Curiosity mission is just the latest example of aluminum’s vital role in the development of modern aviation and mankind’s exploration of space.  Chosen for its lightweight and ability to withstand the stresses that occur during launch and operation, aluminum has been used on Apollo spacecraft, the Skylab, the space shuttles and the International Space Station. Aluminum alloys consistently exceed other metals in areas such as mechanical stability, dampening, thermal management and reduced weight.

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NASA’s next space vehicle will be built with aluminum.

The Orion MPCV (Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle) will serve as NASA’s next-generation space exploration vehicle. Lockheed Martin chose aluminum-lithium for construction of the primary structures of the spacecraft. 

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