Fuel Cells: Powering Spaceflight since 1965
Fuel cells are one of the key parts of the future renewable energy economy. But did you know fuel cells were also used to power NASA spaceflight missions?
In 1962 NASA began developing fuel cell stacks specifically for the Gemini V spacecraft. These PEM fuel cells were developed by General Electric, taking around 3 years of R&D to make it onto the first spacecraft in 1965.
Fuel cells were prized by NASA for their scalability, compact size, high reliability and ability to work well in space.
A few years later, the first Apollo spacecraft to land on the Moon (Apollo 11) was powered by fuel cell. Housing three 2,300W fuel cells, the spacecraft made 7 missions to the moon and back.
Each fuel cell produced electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen to create an electrical current and water.
Interesting fact: the water that fuel cell stacks created on the Apollo missions was used by astronauts for their living needs, such as drinking.
By the 1970s and 80s fuel cells had firmly established themselves as powering NASA spacecraft. The US Space Shuttle – which flew from 1972 to 2011 – was powered by 3 fuel cells weighing over 200 pounds each! These fuel cell stacks contained 96 individual cells and produced 7kW of power (i.e., enough to power seventy 100W lightbulbs).
Eventually, however, fuel cells fell out of fashion as providing power onboard spaceships. They provided the needed energy and had the advantage of creating drinkable water as a by-product. But they contained an asbestos matrix which held the electrolyte fluid - and were therefore dangerous for NASA employees to work with.
As the efficiency of solar panel technology and rechargeable batteries have improved, fuel cells are now rarely used on modern spacecraft.
One notable exception is the International Space Station, where fuel cells are used as auxiliary power when the solar panels are not functioning. Just like the Apollo missions 50 years ago, the excess water created is used by astronauts to drink and even take showers.
However, fuel cells are getting more advanced every year. In the not-so-distant future, fuel cells may be seen in many areas of our lives – such as commercial airplanes, powerplants and personal electronics. The NASA Glenn Research Center is currently developing and researching fuel cells capable of powering a Mars airplane, future Space Stations and potential future space cities on the Moon and Mars.