50 Years After Apollo 11, Oak Ridge Sending Us Back To Space

Published: Jul. 16, 2019 at 10:48 AM EDT
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Oak Ridge had a small part to play in getting the Apollo astronauts, and their precious moon rock cargo, back to earth. The first moon landing happened 50 years ago this week!

Now Atomic City scientists have made a major breakthrough: they're making the power-plant for exploring deep space. That means Oak Ridge National Laboratory is helping NASA stay fueled.

Oak Ridge scientists know all about real world solutions. But here, they're focused on out-of-this-world issues. The iridium they use came from asteroids. It costs about as much as a super-car, $182,000 worth of iridium. Scientists say it's pricey for a reason. It will house plutonium-238 and it's all headed up into space.

"I think everybody that's involved is pretty darn proud," Dr. George Ulrich said.

This is not your average smelting and welding job.

"This is not steel, this is not copper, this is not aluminum," Ulrich said.

Dr. George Ulrich runs the show at Oak Ridge's Radio Isotope Power Systems Lab.

"This will be the source in the future in the power that are used for these deep space missions."

To think big, they begin small.

"Starting with metal powders to finished product," Ulrich said.

Even smaller than that: the atom.

"We're in the middle of recovering some plutonium," Dr. Bob Wham said from a different, sealed lab.

"It's very exciting," Dr. Nidia Gallego said.

The heat released by plutonium powers some big missions that the Apollo astronauts could only dream of: Saturn, Mars, deep space. Dr. Bob Wham makes sure the show runs smoothly.

"But we take great care to make sure that we can operate with it safely," Wham added.

The robotic arms and sleeves keep the plutonium secure, ready for its metal shell. After that, Dr. Nidia Gallego comes in.

"It's an insulator sleeve that helps protect the plutonium," Gallego said of her current projecct.

She's making carbon fiber from scratch, starting out with rayon. All in an Oak Ridge Lab.

"We are excited that we are helping make a mission possible to go and explore beyond our planet," Gallego said.

The final product is already a reality, but these scientists say the job is a dream.

"It's got it all," Ulrich said.

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