The aerospace industry is a relatively new field, with it kicking off after the 1903 engine-powered flight by the Wright Brothers. But it has quickly grown into a major industry, including aviation and space flight. From that first engine-powered flight to the modern rocket and space station, the aerospace industry depends on rubber-based components to safely and efficiently fly people and materials around the planet and into space.
This article covers rubber’s unique role in aerospace and key features in different aircraft types, from commercial planes to spacecraft.
Rubber’s Unique Role in Aerospace
Commercial flights, space exploration, and other aspects of the aerospace industry depend on the unique properties of a variety of materials that are classified as rubber. Rubber is an elastic polymeric substance with a key feature being the ability to return to its original shape after deforming. Rubber products made from natural latex have been used throughout much of recorded history.
Synthetic rubber is commonly used in the aerospace industry to create rubber parts that can withstand conditions such as the following:
- High pressure while in compression, as well as from liquids or gasses that are being contained
- Extreme temperatures, such as extreme heat during takeoff of a rocket and while traveling through the atmosphere, and then extreme cold in space
- High-pressure differential across the rubber part cross-section, such as when an airplane is pressurized or on the International Space Station
- Compatibility with liquids and gasses such as exhaust, oil, and fuel
Key Features of Rubber Parts in Aerospace
The stresses on airplanes and rockets are extraordinary, and the rubber components are a small but critical component for nearly all the systems on these aircraft. There are over 100,000 commercial flights worldwide daily, and rockets are becoming reusable. These aircraft depend on engineered rubber parts such as seals and fasteners.
Commercial aircraft have an average service life of 30 years with hundreds of thousands of flight hours. Within every corner of the aircraft are rubber components, with purposes ranging from comfort to safety. For example, small rubber gaskets keep tray tables in their locked and upright position while o-rings maintain oil pressure in the engine.
Rubber parts on spacecraft, including the International Space Station, are critical for sustaining life and the safe operation of the craft. The tragedy of the Space Shuttle Challenger demonstrates how critical rubber components are for life and safety.
Innovation in the Aerospace Industry
The aerospace industry calls for innovative design of rubber components such as seals and fasteners. Visions of faster airplanes and travel to the moon and Mars require knowledge of materials and engineering principles from concept to prototype through validation and production. The following are a few of the things to consider when selecting a design and material for rubber parts in the aerospace industry:
- Shape design and material selection to meet variable pressures for seals such as for o-rings for things such as permeability, resistance to chemicals, and other stressors
- Ease of replacement during maintenance
- Ease of identification when a rubber part must be replaced, for example, being able to identify cracking before catastrophic failure
- Susceptibility and resilience to environmental factors, including but not limited to ozone, radiation, temperature, and friction
- Understanding the potential methods of failure and mitigation to minimize catastrophic events
- Correct selection of base polymer material and additives for environmental conditions and meeting performance criteria
- Availability of materials, the manufacturing process, and the ability to scale to full production
Rubber is a critical material for all types of aircraft. Without it, commercial flights and even space flights would not be possible.
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