Copper – From the Bronze Age to the Space Shuttle, one of the Most Important Metals on Earth

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Copper is a material that kick started the human use of metals. Copper was first used many thousands of years ago, around 10,000 BC although it is difficult to know an exact date that marked the end of the stone age and the beginning of the bronze age. Copper was useful for many things to these early humans.

Despite the fact that copper was discovered so long ago, it has certainly not lost its usefulness despite many more metals being discovered and huge advances in science and technology since then. From plumbing uses like these copper pipe connectors to electrical wires and computing equipment. Something else that copper has proved useful for is quite literally out of this world – it is an important component in space travel.

In April 1981, the first spacecraft of its kind took off from Kennedy Space Centre. This revolutionary vehicle in space travel was called the space shuttle – looking like a cross between an aeroplane and a rocket, this reusable spacecraft was the first of its kind, and an important part in the engine of it, was copper!

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All NASA spacecraft have used copper and alloys made from copper and the space shuttle was no exception. Copper is fantastic at dissipating the huge amount of heat that is generated by the powerful engines. The main engines of the space shuttle are at the rear of the space shuttle. These, as well as booster engines work together to generate the huge amount of power that is needed to break free from the earth’s gravity and get into space.

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After launch, the main engines of the shuttle are used for around eight and a half minutes, and after this time, the booster rockets are no longer needed, so are jettisoned from the craft. However, the main engines at the rear still remain, a permanent fixture of the space shuttle. These are powered by a combination of oxygen and hydrogen, which creates a vapour that powers the engines. As well as blasting their way out of the atmosphere, these engines can also have the power reduced to allow it to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere and make a safe and controlled re-entry.

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