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Aluminum Reaches for the Moon

On November 16, 2022, NASA kicked off its Artemis I mission at the Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, FL, with the lift off of its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket carrying the uncrewed Orion spacecraft. The Orion craft completed its journey around the moon and successfully splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on December 11.

The goal of the Artemis I mission was to thoroughly test the integrated systems before initiating the crewed missions that will demonstrate the drive to extend human existence to the Moon.

Both the SLS rockets and Orion spacecraft use extensive amounts of aerospace-grade aluminum in their structural design. Contracted primarily through Lockheed Martin and Boeing, Constellium supplied Airware® aluminum-lithium alloys for the project, while AMRO Fabricating Corporation in South El Monte, CA, machines the aluminum plate into the panels used in both the rockets and spacecraft. These plate components are joined using friction stir welding to achieve the high strength properties required.

An SLS rocket consists of fuel/oxidizer tanks, complex pumps and fuel delivery systems, guidance and control systems, a rocket engine, and the payload module. Both the engine and tank panels are comprised of machined aluminum plate.

Figure 2. SLS engine and tank panels stacked back-to-back at AMRO, showing the progress made on the program (picture taken in 2016).
SLS engine and tank panels stacked back-to-back at AMRO, showing the progress made on the program (picture taken in 2016). Learn more on the work AMRO has done for the project in the article, “Key Aerospace Supplier in Southern California Expands with New Machining Capabilities.” 

The Orion crew module is designed to house the space crew during their flight to the moon. Advanced aluminum-lithium alloys are also used in the pressure vessel and structural elements of the Orion module, as these alloys are designed to meet the structural requirements of the vessel, while keeping weight low.

The successful completion of the Artemis I mission will pave the way for the Artemis II to make its first manned flight in 2024.

Editor’s Note: Learn more about the development of technologies for space travel in the article, “The Evolution of Constellium Al-Li Alloys for Space Launch and Crew Module Applications,” by Michael Niedzinski, Constellium. 

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