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BEFORE AND AFTER APOLLO:
MATERION’S 60 YEARS IN SPACE

As an advanced materials provider, Materion keeps its focus on innovating new materials that enable next-generation technologies. But with the 50th anniversary of Apollo coming up, it’s exciting to look back at how the spirit of innovation that drives us today has played a crucial role over the years in the advancement of space technologies and programs. Our legacy of providing reliable beryllium metals for extreme space travel environments can be traced back from the earliest Project Mercury mission to current innovations such as the James Webb Telescope and Kilopower project—with many others in between. While Materion materials have been part of many of NASA’s space expeditions, here are just a few highlights.

PROJECT MERCURY: THE RACE TO SPACE

When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established in 1958, the agency had its sights set on the first American human spaceflight, also known as Project Mercury. Sending a human into space ushered in a new challenge that had to be solved prior to launch—the need for a return capsule that could withstand the heat of reentry. 

NASA studied beryllium as a heat shield and worked with Materion (then known as the Brush Beryllium Company) to make “technological history” by forging 80-inch diameter billets of Quantum Mechanical Vacuum (QMV) beryllium for the heat shield on the back of the capsule. The project was a success and just as the space race was heating up, the first American, Alan Shepard, traveled to space for a 15-minute suborbital flight.  

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As noted in this 1959 advertisement, Materion (formerly Brush Beryllium Company) developed beryllium materials that aided in the first U.S. human spaceflight.

Project Mercury consisted of five additional flights, four of which orbited the Earth. These critical missions proved that humans could survive in space and paved the way for the next groundbreaking mission.

GEMINI: A STEPPING STONE TO THE MOON

The next stage in expanding the space program came when NASA launched Project Gemini in 1966. Following the success of the beryllium heat shields used on the Mercury capsules, beryllium produced by Materion was made into shingles to protect the parachute enclosure of the Gemini capsules. 

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Time lapse of the Gemini X launch | Photo: NASA

This successful two-man mission proved that astronauts could remain in space for an extended period of time (at least two weeks) and conduct work outside of the shuttle. It was these critical achievements that enabled the impending Apollo 11 mission to the moon just three years later—a mission that took place exactly fifty years ago and paved the way for decades of exploration to come. 

THE SPACE SHUTTLE PROGRAM: AFTER THE MOON

After the successful Apollo missions to the moon, NASA shifted its focus during the 1970s to the Space Transportation System (STS)—better known as the Space Shuttle Program, which was comprised of five different shuttles that embarked on 135 missions over the course of 30 years. 

NASA had seen the proven success of beryllium metal and beryllium-oxide ceramics (BeO) on previous missions, so Materion was selected to create several key components for all five of the shuttles to withstand both the high heat reentry of the shuttle and the extreme cold of outer space. 

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Beryllium served as a critical material in the creation of components like the shuttle window and door frames and the navigation system on the Space Shuttle. Source: Rockwell International

From constructing the International Space Station to taking beryllium materials into space that aided in the repair of the Hubble Telescope, the Space Shuttle Program enabled incredible research and progress over the three decades that lead to technological advancements for NASA and ushered in a new era of exploration.   

SPIRIT AND OPPORTUNITY: ROVING THE RED PLANET

On the heels of many successful expeditions, two rovers named Spirit and Opportunity set out to explore the dunes of Mars in 2004. Materion’s AlBeMet® material was used to make more than 350 structural fittings on both rovers, helping to enable their successful landing and deployments on Mars.

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Materion’s Delta, Utah beryllium mine (top) and the Mars Rover (bottom) | Photo: NASA

Both Spirit and Opportunity far exceeded their life expectancy and collected imagery and data that have provided a look into the makeup of the mysterious planet—including evidence of previous wet conditions that may have supported microbial life. Scientists have since been able to utilize the collected data to paint a better picture of the planet’s history and lay the foundation for future Mars exploration. 

JAMES WEBB SPACE TELESCOPE: A PANORAMIC LOOK INTO THE FUTURE

As the millennium came to a close, NASA identified a new mission—to build the largest space-based infrared telescope. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), named after James E. Webb, the administrator of NASA during the Apollo missions, is set to be the successor of the Hubble Space telescope. 

Based on the record of success of beryllium in previous space programs, NASA selected Materion to deliver the 18 hexagonal beryllium mirrors for the project. Materion developed a new grade of beryllium for the mirrors and delivered them in 2005 – well ahead of schedule.

“To my knowledge, there’s no other place in the country that could’ve made beryllium of this quality. The option of making beryllium mirrors would not have been very feasible without the company,” said Lee Feinberg, telescope manager for the JWTS. 

This telescope will enable NASA to see farther in the universe than any other telescope by sitting above earth’s atmosphere with nearly 100 times more power than the Hubble telescope. This will support data collection on everything from the history of our universe to the evolution of our solar system. 

While the JWTS is still undergoing final testing, it is slated for launch in March of 2021. 

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Materion provided 18 hexagonal beryllium mirrors for the JWTS. | Photo: NASA

KILOPOWER PROJECT: POWER TO FUEL HOME AWAY FROM HOME

In addition to working with beryllium metal, NASA has used Materion’s beryllium oxide (BeO) technical ceramics for more than 50 years, and in 2017 the organization selected Materion to supply BeO components for its Kilopower fission reactor project

The Kilopower project is focused on developing affordable fission reactors that could someday deploy power production for future planetary missions and enable long-term human stays on the moon or Mars. While initial testing has been successfully completed, the project is in development.  

CONTINUING OUR LEGACY

Just as each space mission builds on knowledge gained from its predecessors, we are proud to continue building on our legacy in space and to provide materials solutions that ensure future missions achieve goals that once seemed out of reach. 

To learn more about beryllium metals, beryllium containing alloys and beryllium composites, visit our website