Space, the final frontier.

Captains James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard

One of the most significant challenges facing NASA in the development of the next generation of vehicle to replace the aging Space Shuttles and carry astronauts back to the Moon and the International Space Station (and beyond) is weight. The less a vehicle weighs, the more it can conserve on fuel. NASA is now looking into the possibility of using carbon nanotubes in the construction of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and future spacecraft. By using carbon nanotubes, NASA estimates that the weight of Orion and other vessels could be reduced by up to 50%.

In order to achieve efficient and consistent production of carbon nanotubes at a reasonable cost, NASA has been working with the private sector, awarding Phase I and Phase II Small Business Innovation Research Contracts to SouthWest Nanotechnologies, Inc of Norman OK. Using these research contracts, SWeNT has been able to develop production methods that produce consistent high quality CNTs at lower cost. In turn, this has lead to increased business from other companies for CNTs to be used in a variety of products, including body and vehicle armor for use in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it replaces Kevlar.

Those readers who grew up watching and following the Apollo lunar missions and can still recall where they were and what they were doing when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon’s surface, may also recall the wide range of spin-offs from government sponsored technology that made their way into everyday use. As many have observed, the development of high quality lost cost CNTs and other nanomaterials has the potential to transform industry and commonly used products. If the use of CNTs in spacecraft plays a part in returning humans into space and averts tragedies such as Challenger or  Columbia, it will be funds well spent.

They will continue the voyages we have begun and journey to all the undiscovered countries, boldly going where no man – where no one – has gone before.

Captain Kirk, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country