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Texas: Energy is Taking U.S. to the Frontiers of Space

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted June 28, 2017

“Space, the final frontier … to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

A recognized piece of American pop culture, Capt. James T. Kirk’s dog-eared quotation actually stands up pretty well as a rallying cry for space exploration and the U.S. space program in general. Somewhere, Mr. Spock raises an eyebrow and nods.

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Folks at NASA probably would applaud. On a hot, summer day in Houston, parents drop off their children at the space agency’s Johnson Space Center for a day-camp filled with STEM activities and awe-inspiring sights. Who knows, the next John Glenn might be one of the kids goofing off as the campers venture into one of the center’s newest attractions.

The Mission Mars exhibit features Orion, NASA’s Mars-bound spacecraft that one day, NASA says, will “take humans farther than they’ve ever gone before.” Echoes of Capt. Kirk. Campers get to touch fabricated Martian rocks, view a Martian sunset and learn how Orion’s 33.9 million-mile journey is possible. From the propellants fueling the shuttle to the petroleum-based materials in Orion’s landing parachute, energy will take us to the planets and bring us home again.

Infographic: Powering Space Travel

This was seen in Orion’s first unmanned flight test in December 2014, consisting of two orbits around the Earth before splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. The safe landing was guided by three parachutes made of a Kevlar® and nylon hybrid material, which deployed at 9,000 feet to slow the module from 130 mph to 17 mph. Kevlar, an extremely strong polymer used to make bulletproof vests, and nylon, are both derived from petroleum.

As kids take turns stepping into the simulated Orion capsule and make their way through other Space Center exhibits, they learn that man’s endeavor to touch the stars is powered by natural gas and oil.

Rocket Fuel

At the next stop, campers step into Rocket Park to view Saturn V, the 36-story rocket used in the 1960s and 1970s Apollo program that took Americans to the moon. Space travel depends on the fuel that allows spacecraft to leave Earth’s atmosphere. Saturn V used RP-1, a liquid kerosene propellant derived from petroleum, as does SpaceX’s current Falcon 9 rocket, which is used to transport satellites.

Here’s one that might blow some of the kids’ minds (and adults, too): Petroleum also powers the computers and other equipment on the spacecraft during the mission. Liquid hydrogen has become the fuel of choice for powering electricity through fuel cells during space exploration. Hydrogen is most commonly produced using natural gas through a steam-reforming process.

Surviving in Space

After exploring the Saturn V and learning about how mankind can touch the outer limits of the solar system, campers finish their day at the astronaut gallery, learning how humans survive expeditions with a big hand from space suits – more formally known as Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMUs).

EMUs are made of 14 layers of materials that protect astronauts from extreme temperatures and small bits of space dust, among other functions. These materials include urethane-coated nylon, Kevlar, spandex and a pressure-restraining Dacron®, all synthetic fabrics made from petroleum. (Thanks refining sector.) As a fully assembled suit, the EMU is basically a personal spacecraft for the user, providing oxygen, drinking water and communications.

Infographic: Surviving in Space

In addition to the suit material, the helmet and visor that are part of the EMU also come from natural gas and oil. The helmet, a pressure bubble with ventilation and oxygen systems, is made of plastic, which is created using petroleum and natural gas. This pressure bubble is covered by the Extravehicular Visor Assembly, a shield that provides protection from the impact of small objects, ultraviolet rays and fluctuating temperatures. This visor is made from a polycarbonate, which is developed using petroleum and can also be found in bulletproof glass and in automobiles.

An Enduring Legacy

Outside of being a thrilling and educational place for children to visit when out of school in the summer, the Johnson Space Center, which occupies 1,620 acres, is an historic site that continues to maintain a pivotal place in space exploration.

The center has a workforce of more than 10,000 Texans, who support NASA by being leaders in human space flight through the development of new science and technology. Along with other NASA employees across the nation, this team relies on natural gas and oil to aid in man’s continuing interstellar journeys.

Oil Explores Space

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Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.