As 2024 is likely to be an important year in the development of space travel, now seems a good time to look at how cork plays a key role in shielding astronauts and space vehicles from extreme temperatures. These can range from -423F (-253C) to more than 200F (93C) and with almost 9 million pounds (40 million newtons) of thrust being produced by the latest rockets during launch and ascent, cork is used as protection under the solid rocket boosters as well as on the fairings and feed-lines connecting to other hardware in the spacecraft.
Since the early Scout rockets of the 1960’s cork materials have been used to provide thermal insulation during take-off and leaving the earth’s atmosphere as well as on re-entry.
Afterwards came Mercury and Gemini Spacecraft, followed by the Saturn V and Apollo program.
In addition, Ariane 1, 2 and 3, Space Shuttle and Titan, Pegasus XL and Delta IV have all employed cork-based materials because of its low weight and thermal insulation properties.
Currently, cork is being used in Vega, Falcon 9 as well as SpaceX and the NASA Artemis program which plans to send astronauts back to the moon, Earth’s natural satellite.
Luis Gil, a member of the Portuguese Society of Materials, who has been involved in these projects, says “Aerospace components must be lightweight structures and offer high resistance.
“Hence various sandwich components based on composite materials with reinforced sheets and lightweight core materials are used and cork is the principal raw material because it offers all these characteristics.”
Luis Gil explains that cork and cork-based materials are used in many parts of spacecraft such as solid fuel tanks, lining of the engine, cone, nose and main body, and the lining of the connection rings of the external tank, passing through the tunnel covers and assembly areas, transition lids of the security systems and also in the heat shields of the space capsules.
Donald Thomas, an astronaut who flew on four missions with the Space Shuttle missions says:
“Cork has been an important component of the thermal protection systems of almost all rockets launched from Earth.
“I predict that there will be similar applications for cork as we visit other moons and planets in our solar system and eventually launch rockets from their surfaces back to Earth. Cork… don’t leave Earth without it!”