These Moments: Aerospace

27 February 2017

On this blog we’ve described how fossil fuels are central to every aspect of modern life on Earth, including agriculturemedicine, internet, and even sports. As explained in the following video, fossil fuels are also integral to life beyond our Earth.

Domestic oil and natural gas are essential to space flight. For starters, our primary rocket fuel, liquid hydrogen, comes mostly from fossil fuels. According to the U.S. Energy Department, 95% of hydrogen produced in America comes from natural gas. Here’s how NASA describes liquid hydrogen and the fossil fuels from which it is derived:

From the Apollo missions through the Space Shuttle Program, NASA has relied on liquid hydrogen as a fuel source for the upper stages of its rocket launches. The reason is simple: Hydrogen is the most efficient propellant there is. Measure for measure, it provides more thrust than any other fuel source. 

[…]

Hydrogen is one of the most widely used gases in industry. Oil refineries utilize the gas to turn crude oil into gasoline and diesel, and manufacturers mix hydrogen with argon to weld stainless steel. Chemical plants also use the element as a building block for creating ammonia, a key ingredient in fertilizer, and methanol, an important constituent in many polymers.

Beyond rocket fuel, fossil fuels are the building blocks of the actual space shuttle. Every shuttle is comprised of thousands of individual components from a variety of materials. Here are a few examples:

  • Inside the shuttle, every piece of plastic comes from natural gas.
  • Outside the shuttle, “reinforced carbon-carbon” (derived from carbon-based fuels) is used to help with reentry in extreme temperatures.
  • Mission control in Houston and the Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida require vast amounts of electricity to run their computers. The overwhelming majority of that electricity comes from fossil fuels.

For millennia, men and women have looked up at the stars and wondered what lies beyond. We have always dreamed big—and finally, with fossil fuels, we harnessed the energy needed to turn our dreams of exploring the final frontier into reality.