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NASA Space Science Technology

NASA Tests All-Composite Prototype Crew Module 67

coondoggie writes "With an eye toward building safer, lighter and tougher spacecraft, NASA said today its prototype space crew module made up of composite materials handled tests simulating structural stresses of launch and atmospheric reentry. The idea behind NASA's Composite Crew Module project is to test new structural materials for possible future NASA spacecraft. According to NASA, composite materials are being looked at because they are stiff and lightweight and can be formed into complex shapes that may be more structurally efficient. In space travel, where every additional pound of weight drives costs higher, any weight savings provides increased payload capacity and potentially reduces mission expense."
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NASA Tests All-Composite Prototype Crew Module

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  • ...that something strong enough to withstand space travel and atmospheric exit/entry can be so fragile.

    "Hey, we have this contraption here that can take you to space and bring you back...all while keeping you alive! But don't breathe on it wrong, or it will fall apart..."

    • What boggles my mind? All of this effort in materials technology, to build a glorified Apollo capsule - c. 1967.

      • by TheLink ( 130905 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @12:51PM (#30906204) Journal
        What also boggles me is they threw away a lot of the stuff - including data they got from the lunar missions.

        A lot of the expertise has been lost. People have retired, the factories that built the parts (e.g. those huge Saturn V engines) may no longer exist.

        Once you lose the expertise and infrastructure, it costs a lot to rebuild it.

        Imagine if we were all nuked into the stone age and only crawled out of the bunkers 5-10 years later. Getting back to the state of fabricating 3GHz x86 chips would take a long time and lots of investment.
        • by vlm ( 69642 )

          Once you lose the expertise and infrastructure, it costs a lot to rebuild it.

          For a normal person or business, costing alot is bad. For a "stimulus" or govt job, its good. Who wants "managed a $1M program with 10 people" on their resume when they can get "managed a $100M program with 1000 people"

        • Imagine if we were all nuked into the stone age and only crawled out of the bunkers 5-10 years later. Getting back to the state of fabricating 3GHz x86 chips would take a long time and lots of investment.

          If we had any fucking sense left we wouldn't repeat the fucking travesty of the x86 ISA.

        • You think you could finally get away from x86 after being nearly nuked into oblivion. You would probably still recreate it, just because so much software was written on it that would probably still exist. If you wanted an x86 free world, you would not only have to destroy all the hardware, but all the software as well. At best, you might finally Finish the transition to x64
        • by necro81 ( 917438 )

          "Imagine if we were all nuked into the stone age and only crawled out of the bunkers 5-10 years later. Getting back to the state of fabricating 3GHz x86 chips would take a long time and lots of investment"

          Though, I would hope that it takes less time to do it the second go 'round than the first time. Maybe we'll skip over the "faster clockspeeds are always better" phase of development next time.

        • by sconeu ( 64226 )

          The factory that built the F-1 still exists -- it's about a mile from my house. They still have an F-1 in front of it.
          It's Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (formerly Boeing formerly Rockwell International formerly North American Rockwell).

          However, I'm sure that the production line no longer exists.

        • Once you lose the expertise and infrastructure, it costs a lot to rebuild it.

          Yet private space start-ups are doing amazing things, for 10-100x cheaper, all from clean sheet design.

          IMHO, NASA needs a clean-sheet reboot on everything it does, taking notes from the entrepreneurs. In many ways all that infrastructure has served it's purpose and becomes expensive to maintain.

          When we see the space industry run like a semi-conductor industry (which is starting to happen) we're going to see a kind of law of accelerating returns like moore's law.

          • I really like the idea of private space startups...

            But show me a commercial sat in LEO or GEO for 10-100x cheaper than NASA/ESA/USAF put them up for. (Has to be a private US or EU startup)
            Show me a human in orbit for 10-100x cheaper than NASA or Russia or China (has to be a private US or EU startup)

            • by TheLink ( 130905 )
              One of the reasons why the space shuttle is so expensive is because it is designed to bring a lot of stuff _down_ intact.

              The other launch vehicles just bring stuff up. They are in comparison just a wrapper around rocket fuel ;).
        • Which is a big reason why the US keeps building military aviation and naval warships.

          If the US stopped building the fighters, lifters, carriers, subs and destroyers, even for a couple years, the infrastructure and knowledge would go away. Tanks and armored vehicles are "easy" compared to aviation and ships. Think about it, the US has been building aircraft carriers constantly since 1940. Every year for 70 years thousands of people have been building them in the US.

          Against a Dark Background has some good ins

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by khallow ( 566160 )

        What boggles my mind? All of this effort in materials technology, to build a glorified Apollo capsule - c. 1967.

        My view is that this is the best part of the Constellation program. The space capsule remains a great space vehicle design. The new ground that Orion breaks here is the use of modern materials and electronics systems. Down the road, I can see the manufacture of space capsules as being somewhere between an advanced bike and a modern car in complexity and cost.

      • What boggles my mind? All of this effort in materials technology, to build a glorified Apollo capsule - c. 1967.

        Yes, especially when something like this [] on a back burner somewhere.
      • What's wrong with an Apollo capsule? It seems to have been an extremely successful design. . .
    • They are designed to take stresses in one area not others.

    • What boggles my mind is that somebody has come up with a prototype for an all-composite crew! Can we just plug in the module and go?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

      Ever seen a light aircraft?
      They seem pretty fragile but can go 200 MPH.
      Take a look at a Pitts special sometime at an airshow. The will go more than 200 MPH in a dive and take enough Gs to flatten your eyeballs.
      They are covered in fabric.
      You make them just strong enough to take the loads but you protect them from unneeded loads unlike your car which has take your kid standing on the hood.

  • SMACK! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Sooner Boomer ( 96864 ) <sooner.boomr@g[ ] ['mai' in gap]> on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @12:30PM (#30905886) Journal

    My only concern is how well the honeycomb material handles impacts (everything from birds to micrometeorites...). My experience is that composites have a very narrow elastic region in the stress-strain curve, then they snap. Also they tend to be brittle rather than bendable, causing them to shatter under impact. But I'm sure NASA knows what they're doing...

    • I suppose that is why they are planning to test the modules resistance to damage in the near future followed by a final test to failure.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      What you describe are properties of ceramics. There's a reason composites are used and that is to overcome inherent weaknesses that a material alone would have. The brittleness in ceramics are the reason they are coupled with polymer/metals to improve ductility and fracture toughness, but ceramics have a higher strength/weight than metals and polymers depending on the application.

      Just FYI, wood is a very good composite material. It comes in strength, lower ductility versions (something like oak/maple) as w

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by DerekLyons ( 302214 )

      My only concern is how well the honeycomb material handles impacts (everything from birds to micrometeorites...).


      But I'm sure NASA knows what they're doing...

      Since NASA has been flying honeycomb as structural material since the 60's, I'm pretty sure they do. Among other things, the skin of the SLA (the Saturn Launch Adapter, the conical 'garage' between a Saturn Ib or V booster and the Apollo CSM) was structural honeycomb.

    • You better not buy a fiberglass or carbon fiber bow then.
    • My only concern is how well the honeycomb material handles impacts (everything from birds to micrometeorites...).

      I don't know about birds, but in my space materials class we were told off the cuff that honeycomb materials (depending on the various base materials used) were actually very useful for micrometeorite impacts because the multi-layer nature of them tends to reduce the energy through the impact on the first and second layer (if there are more than 2) and trap the meteorite prior to entry into the spacecraft bus. Of course, certain blankets also perform a similar role, some better, some worse. It should be no

    • But I'm sure NASA knows what they're doing...

      -Famous Last Words

  • by ElSupreme ( 1217088 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @12:43PM (#30906098)
    I am (or was before I got lazy) and avid Cyclist. And well the materials used in the bicycle industry are basically the high tech materials that are starting to be put into the aerospace industyr (due to safety and devolpment periods bikes tend to put out new materials first).

    When Carbon Fibre started to become omnipresent in road cycling it was only sparing used in mountain biking. This was due to precieved, and real, issues dealing with durability. Rocks and branches hitting Carbon Fibre frames and causing small failures that normal use would increase and cause catastropic failure. But now carbon is everywhere because design and testing have overcome these problems, and the aerospace industry, with actual and good engineers will be able to do the same.

    Granted not everything will be composite. There are lots of things that are done better by Aluminum, or steel, or titanium. But for large, odd shaped structural pieced carbon fibre can't be beat. This is a good thing, so long as NASA doesn't go Carbon Crazy like the bike industry. You can almost buy a 100% Carbon Fibre bike, gears, cables, everything.
    • Composite has been used in aerospace well before cycling. The 787 is the first all composite airliner but other aircraft have used composites in various parts well before that. Military aircraft such as the B2, F-22, and F-35 are composite aircraft.
    • So what you are saying is that instead of investing in space technology so that we can see spin-offs in other areas, we could be investing in bike technology that spins-off to space technology.

      That's not how it's suppose to work. It's suppose to be only space that has spin-off technologies. /sarcasm

      We really need to realize that any tech that pushes the envelope will have spin-off technologies.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

      I think you will find that the Aerospace industry used those materials before the bike makers did.
      Ti? SR-71, F-4, F-111, and F-14 all used a good amount of it and I believe it was used in jet engines before that. For the F-4 you are talking about the late 1950s.
      Carbon Fiber? I think the F-15 used it for it's airbrake or it may have been Boron back in the late 1960s early 1970s.
      Yes large composite structures are just now making it into airliners but that is normal.
      In Aerospace you try out new stuff
      First in d

    • And well the materials used in the bicycle industry are basically the high tech materials that are starting to be put into the aerospace industyr (due to safety and devolpment periods bikes tend to put out new materials first).

      Starting to be put in the aerospace industry? The skin of the B2 bomber (designed late 1980's) is fiber composite. The main structural frame of the Hubble Space Telescope (designed/built in the early 1980's) is fibre composite. Honeycomb composite control surfaces (ailerons, rudders

      • I wouldn't discount the bicycle industry for its 'comparative eye dropper load' of impact on the composite materials industry.

        The vast array of applications that Carbon Fibre is used in the bicycle industry is also something that should be considered. Aerospace applications have their parts engineered to the smallest detail, and don't change at a rapid pace. The bicycle industry (and well other sports industries also) add two things beyond what the Aerospace industry is able to do.

        The first is design ev
        • by cmowire ( 254489 )

          Um, I think you are ascribing far too much engineering expertise to the folks who work in the bike industry. The bike industry spends a lot of money on marketing and throws a few pennies at engineering. And the cyclists of the world eat it up.

          There's something to be said for not knowing that what you are doing is something that engineering textbooks teach you not to do. This can lead to great things. But this also leads to carbon fiber parts that fail in all sorts of catastrophic ways. Or tires with co

          • I actually am a mechanical engineer and was attempting to get a job in the bicycle industry when I graduated. And well I found out that they don't really hire engineers, they advertize for them but really want a CAD guy that runs a 3rd party FEA software. I'm sure that Shimano and SRAM hire a few; but really they all just build something [most likely stupidly light] and test it. So I don't mean to ascribe to any engineering expertise they really don't have.

            I agree on the other parts almost fully. But I do
        • And these parts are in real world, high cycle, applications. And they are in hostile environments

          So far, just like aerospace - only decades later.

          This varied usage, and real world testing is not something that can be done by testing in a lab, and real world testing on multi million dollar test units.

          Maybe you missed the part of my post describing composites in aerospace in the real world.

          I realize my post made is seem as if I was stating that the bicycle industry is devoping carbon fibre fas

          • So your B2 bomber, your F22 and all your other composite aircraft number in the hundreds? There are tens of thousands of composite bicycles being used every day. There are many orders of magnitude of real world testing going on.

            Your 100% military aircraft list is being flown my pilots with very strict guidelines on how to operate. There is not a lot of variation of usage there. Sure in a battle environment this would not be the case, but I don't think there are that many cases of extreme non-planned usage
            • I doesn't matter how many B2's or F22's there are - they are in the real world, and were decades before bicycles. No matter how you spin it, and you try mighty hard, you can't change that fact.

              And you really, honestly, think that odd crashes and weird user configurations amount to things only tested by bicycles and the equivalent are not and cannot be tested in the lab?

              I started out thinking you were merely misinformed, now I can conclude nothing but that you are ignorant and deluded.

              • If you have 500 (very ambitious estimate) composite airplanes, they run 24h 365.25days (which is probably more than 10 times their actual use) for 30 years (assuming start in 1989, when the first B-2 Sprit flight was) you get a grand total of 131.5 million hours.

                Compared with say 50,000 composite bicycles (very conservative estimate) Used 250 hours a year you only need 10.5 years to exceed the total real world time. Carbon bikes have been around a lot longer than that. And I would bet the pro cycling circ
      • Honeycomb composite control surfaces (ailerons, rudders, elevators) have been common in military aircraft since the 1970's

        I'm not 100% sure on this but I believe that the Boeing 707, designed in the late 1950s, used honeycomb composite in it's landing gear doors and possibly other places.

    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      not taking notes from the bicycle industry
      I was building gliders back in the 60's made of fiberglass and carbon fiber and even before bikes were using carbon fiber I had friends who built 100% airframe carbon fiber gliders.

      Well I did see bikes made out of bamboo in the 70's I guess those could be consider carbon :)

    • What are you talking about? Bicycle carbon-carbon is the scraps from the aerospace industry. It wouldn't be possible to have carbon fiber bicycle parts without the aerospace industry driving down the cost. In fact, there's a pretty good chance that your carbon fiber frame parts were made by Boeing....

  • A Composite Hockey stick shatters just like anything else.

    In fact, some players still prefer Wooden hockey sticks because they offer a different flex:sturdiness ratio.

    While I'm sure a spacecraft is much different then a stick designed for repeated contact with Ice and Rubber, I wouldn't be surprised if this CCM doesn't do as well as they predict.

    • by khallow ( 566160 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @01:07PM (#30906498)
      I guess we better not use this capsule in hockey games then.
    • The wooden sticks are much better for high-sticking opponents in the face; the composite sticks just shatter, while the wooden ones deliver a much harder impact before splintering. Sure, it may sound like just a little thing to you and me, but to a hockey player, this is a BIG difference!
    • Yeah and those sticks cost a ton. You can replace a wooden hockey stick for like $20-$30 easily, but a carbon fibre stick costs like 4x more than that. NHL players likely don't know or care what it costs, they just tell the equipment manager to get them whatever and it appears. Hell, most of their stuff is likely given to them free by sponsors anyways. "Hey if Sidney Crosby is using an Easton/Sherwood/Nike/Bauer/etc stick, then every kid in Canada will want to use one too... hmm why don't we give him an unl

      • Yeah I haven't checked lately but I remember some of them running over 300 dollars.

        I've seen them break though, just as easily, though its usually in the blade. Wooden sticks tend to break in the shaft, and their biggest downside is that they splinter, sending wooden shards just about everywhere, pretty dangerous.

    • by raddan ( 519638 ) *
      I still use a wooden stick. Then again, the flexibility of the stick is a factor in how I play. You can get a lot of power out of the spring return of a hockey stick with certain kinds of shots. Of course, we didn't have composite sticks when I was a kid, so this is how I learned.

      Aluminum sticks were the new thing when I was growing up. The advantage is that they rarely break (I think the blade is replaceable wood). I broke a LOT of wooden sticks growing up. Carbon fibre... never tried it. They're
  • Great plan! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by eln ( 21727 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @12:59PM (#30906340)
    This is excellent news. In addition to making the spacecraft lightweight, carbon composites will render it completely invisible to DRADIS!
  • by edittard ( 805475 )
    Will this module work with a real crew, or one that are made of flesh and bone?
  • I'm hoping good old NASA research into these materials will also lead to better materials able to withstand extreme heat, making fusion reactors more possible.
  • Better shielding (Score:5, Informative)

    by ral ( 93840 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @01:44PM (#30907000)
    Contrary to what you might think, hydrocarbons actually provide better shielding against cosmic rays than aluminum, which produces secondary radiation even more dangerous than cosmic rays. Here is an article from NASA [] that explains this in more detail.
  • Distorted Image (Score:3, Informative)

    by necro81 ( 917438 ) on Tuesday January 26, 2010 @02:41PM (#30907824) Journal
    I don't know about everyone else, but the image that shows up in the Layer 8 blog has the crew module squashed down so that it appears shorter than it is wide. This is the result of image distortion. The actual NASA press release [] has the original image with its correct aspect ratio, along with a short video about the testing that shows some of the static rig and test equipment.
  • I'm sure the success of Space Ship One had absolutely nothing to do with this decision.
  • Wouldn't that be a composite made up of every other material?

  • I, for one, welcome our all-composite overlords.

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