A Look to Our Past to Inspire our Present: the History of Hydrogen in Space

April 6, 2020

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In times of uncertainty, it’s helpful to look to the past, which can serve as a powerful reminder of the strength of human resilience. 

For example, in 1940, the US armed forces weren’t even considered to rank among the 12 most formidable armies in the world. However, that didn’t stop the country from marshaling its forces and preparing to march into war. It was during this time that President Franklin D. Roosevelt said the U.S. would produce 50,000 airplanes over the course of just four years, a feat no one at the time thought possible. Roosevelt underestimated. The United States would instead go on to produce double that original goal, building an astonishing 100,000 airplanes and transforming our Air Force into a true armada.

In 1962, during one of the most tumultuous periods the country had ever seen, President John F. Kennedy declared the United States would go to the moon within the decade. There were those who doubted it could be done. There were those who questioned the mission’s purpose. However, JFK knew the American people were up to the challenge, “one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.” Then, in 1969, the first human being walked on the moon. 

Even in our darkest hours, the power and ingenuity of the American spirit lives on. Let’s take a look at some of the ways hydrogen has enabled one of our country’s most ambitious and enduring goals: to not only gaze at the stars, but to walk among them. 

  • Centaur Upper Stage Rocket: The history of hydrogen and space travel actually predates the founding of NASA itself. In 1957, almost a full year before NASA was established, the Air Force was hard at work studying an exhaustive proposal for the development of a new space booster powered by hydrogen. The proposal aimed to give the U.S. the ability to place heavy payloads in orbit in the shortest amount of time possible, in hopes of avoiding decades of continuous research and development. The result was the Centaur upper stage rocket, otherwise known as America’s Workhorse in Space. The Centaur rocket would go on to play a key role in enabling the US to surpass the Soviet Union in the Cold War space race. 
  • Apollo 11: We all know Apollo 11 as the famed spaceflight mission that first landed humans on the Moon, but few are aware of the role that hydrogen played in making that trip possible. Not only did NASA use liquid hydrogen as fuel to propel its rockets, but it also employed a hydrogen-powered fuel cell system to supply both electricity and water for the duration of the mission. The use of hydrogen during the Apollo 11 mission was perhaps most visible at its very beginning, serving as fuel for the enormous Saturn V rockets that powered its launch. For the first stage of rocket launch, the five F-1 engines of Saturn V used kerosene and oxygen as fuels. However, in the second and third stages, the J-2 engines used hydrogen and oxygen to push the probe first into orbit, and then onward to the Moon.
  • Powering Modern Space Shuttles: The technology of space travel may have evolved by leaps and bounds since its origins in the 1950s, but hydrogen power still plays a key role in powering modern space missions. Through electrolysis, water can be separated into hydrogen and oxygen, and then the components  used as the fuel for fuel cells, whose only byproducts are electricity and water. This liquid hydrogen is used in fuel cells to power space shuttle electrical systems, with the typical mission requiring just three fuel cells to power all space probe instruments. Crucially, the water produced as a byproduct of the fuel cells’ reactions can be used as a coolant for electronic devices that are prone to overheating. That water can also be used as drinking water for the crew—although we’re sure the Tang tastes much better!

Even today, hydrogen remains an important element (pun intended) of space travel. #hydrogennow