When the “Curiosity” rover of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Project is sent to Mars in 2011 to explore the red planet and determine whether the planet has ever – or still could – support life, aluminum will be part of the mission. The nine-foot-long, 1,875-pound robot is made mostly of aluminum and powered by a nuclear generator. Curiosity’s aluminum body is called the warm electronics box, or “WEB” for short. Like a car body, the rover body is a strong, outer layer that protects the rover’s computer and electronics. The rover body thus keeps the rover’s vital organs protected and temperature-controlled.

Exploring Mars is just another step in securing aluminum’s history in space exploration. Aluminum has played a vital part in space industry since its early days, and Alcoa has been a key supplier. Alcoa alloys and propellants have helped make many space milestones possible, from the first manned flight and the first moon landing to today’s Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs.

It started with Sputnik, the basketball-sized Soviet satellite launched into orbit on October 4, 1957, that was the first man-made object to circle the Earth. The Russian satellite that began the space race of the ‘50s and ‘60s, used the metal from a plant now owned and managed by Alcoa in Samara.

And in the Apollo space program of the 1960s, the tiny lunar module Eagle was built almost completely of aluminum – a brilliant piece of ultra-light ingenuity. One of the many bright ideas was to use aluminum coated mylar film instead of rigid heat shields. Every ounce of weight was precious, and “gift wrapping” the lander saved 100 pounds.

When the Space Shuttle Columbia made its maiden flight in 1981, Alcoa was on board helping to open up the solar system with powdered aluminum fuel that helped launch the shuttle and aluminum components in the main engine’s liquid hydrogen pump. Alcoa Aluminum Powder is used exclusively as a fuel in the reusable solid rocket motors for NASA’s Space Shuttle. After the last Space Shuttle launch, scheduled to fly in 2010, Alcoa is poised to provide aluminum powder for the next generation of space travel as well – the Ares 1.

The Ares 1 rocket will enable astronauts to explore space beyond low earth orbit with the goal of reaching the moon by 2020. But it’s not just the fuel that Alcoa will provide. Alcoa’s aluminum-lithium alloy 2195 thin plate is also being used for the Ares 1 crew launch vehicle. Alcoa’s Davenport operations will produce almost one million pounds of the thin aluminum-lithium material for this program. The Alcoa Technical Center is casting the aluminum-lithium ingot and shipping it to Davenport, where it is rolled into thin plate for additional fabrication.

Learnings from Ares 1 will benefit the Ares V, which will be the “heavy lift” cargo launch vehicle that will replace the Space Shuttle after its retirement in 2010, and will also feature aluminum. Ares V will serve as the principal launcher for missions beyond the Earth-Moon system, including the program’s ultimate goal – a manned mission to Mars after 2030.

To learn more about the future of aluminum in space applications, visit the Aluminum Association.