The spring of 1961 was a seminal year for space travel. Russia's Yuri Gagarin became the first person to ever leave the Earth's atmosphere in April of that year, followed just weeks later in May 1961 by American astronaut Alan Shepard. In each of NASA's early manned spaceflight programs, namely Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, stainless steel featured heavily on the list of materials used to create the spacecraft. One of the key qualities of stainless steel that saw it chosen for use in the missions was its strong resistance to extreme temperatures, which made it especially useful for crafting heat shields which protected both the craft and its crew.
Scheduled for launch in November after being delayed due to Hurricane Ian, NASA's Artemis I is set to usher in a new age of space travel. The most powerful rocket ever built by the space agency will carry a number of CubeSats out of Earth's atmosphere on its journey to the moon: one of these miniature satellites is named the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout (NEA Scout) and will explore asteroids close to our planet.
Though NEA is only the size of an average shoebox, is is propelled by a solar sail which measures a massive 86 square metres. The sail is made from CP1 film that has a highly-reflective coating that will allow it to be propelled using the solar wind, without any need for extra fuel. Booms made from stainless steel will ensure that these sails deploy properly.
Launched on Christmas Day last year, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has sent back the clearest images of deep space that have ever been seen. The primary mirror of the groundbreaking telescope is a massive 6.5 metres in diameter and is constructed from 18 hexagonal segments made from beryllium. To create the mirror, a stainless steel mould was used, into which was pressed the beryllium powder.
In addition to producing JWST's mirror, the largest ever launched into space, stainless steel is also a critical material in the telescope's sophisticated cooling system. The two primary parts of this system (the Cryocooler compressor assembly and the Cryocooler tower assembly) are connected together using stainless steel tubes which, plated with gold, measure just two millimetres in diameter. Once again, stainless steel's exceptional resistance to temperature extremes makes the material ideal, as the Cryocooler is able to keep the telescope at a temperature of -267 degrees Celsius!