Great Movies Reimagined: Apollo 13

14 November 2016

This is the first installment of our new series, “Great Movies Reimagined Without Fossil Fuels.” Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks.

Hollywood…we have a problem. As anyone who remembers the iconic film Apollo 13 knows, space flight ain’t easy. But it would be impossible without fossil fuels.

As part of our new series, “Great Movies Reimagined Without Fossil Fuels,” we took a look at how the Apollo 13 space mission would have gone without domestic oil and natural gas.

Spoiler: it wouldn’t have. That’s because fossil fuels are integral to space flight. For starters, our primary rocket fuel, liquid hydrogen, comes mostly from oil, natural gas, and coal. According to the U.S. Energy Department, 95% of hydrogen produced in America comes from natural gas. Here’s how NASA describes liquid hydrogen and the fossil fuels from which it is derived:

From the Apollo missions through the Space Shuttle Program, NASA has relied on liquid hydrogen as a fuel source for the upper stages of its rocket launches. The reason is simple: Hydrogen is the most efficient propellant there is. Measure for measure, it provides more thrust than any other fuel source. 

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Hydrogen is one of the most widely used gases in industry. Oil refineries utilize the gas to turn crude oil into gasoline and diesel, and manufacturers mix hydrogen with argon to weld stainless steel. Chemical plants also use the element as a building block for creating ammonia, a key ingredient in fertilizer, and methanol, an important constituent in many polymers.

Beyond rocket fuel, fossil fuels are the building blocks of the actual space shuttle. Every shuttle is comprised of thousands of individual components from a variety of materials. Here are a few examples:

  • Inside the shuttle, every piece of plastic comes from natural gas.
  • Outside the shuttle, “reinforced carbon-carbon” (derived from carbon-based fuels) is used to help with reentry in extreme temperatures.
  • Mission control in Houston and the Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida require vast amounts of electricity to run their computers. The overwhelming majority of that electricity comes from fossil fuels.

Ultimately, Apollo 13 is a movie about the triumph of human ingenuity against the odds. The energy needed to make it all possible comes from fossil fuels.

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