A History of Aluminum in the Aerospace Industry

Aluminum is among the most popular choices of metal when it comes to CNC machining, mostly because it is both lightweight and strong. Aluminum is about one-third the weight of steel, yet some alloys can be, pound-for-pound, just as strong as or stronger than steel. In its raw form, aluminum comes with a relatively low price tag. It is also one of the easiest metals to work with in machining. It’s no wonder, then, that aluminum is a vital component of many American industries. One of these is the aerospace industry, where custom CNC aluminum has been important since the very beginning.

Getting Off the Ground

The connection between aerospace and aluminum actually dates back to the very origins of flight. The Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer was made primarily of lightweight wood. However, in constructing their engine Orville and Wilbur also selected an aluminum crankcase. Aluminum offered a much lighter alternative to standard iron crankcases of the time, a key element in getting off the ground and staying airborne for 120 feet. 

Aluminum use wasn’t limited to the crankcase in the aircraft manufactured for World War I. German designer Hugo Junkers constructed the first full-metal aircraft in 1915, just 12 years after Kitty Hawk. That plane’s entire fuselage was made from aluminum alloys. 

Aluminum was such an important component of World War II planes that the U.S. conducted aluminum and “tinfoil” drives to gather more of the material. Some movie theaters, in fact, offered free tickets in exchange for aluminum foil balls. More than half of all planes produced for the war were made primarily of aluminum. 

Launching Into Space

The aerospace industry entered a brand new phase in 1957, with the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first space satellite. The small sphere, equipped with radio antennas, was made entirely of aluminum, once again because aluminum was lightweight enough to get it out of Earth’s orbit yet durable enough to withstand the rigors of space travel.

Likewise, the U.S. Apollo spacecraft relied heavily on aluminum. In fact, the first lunar landing module, the Eagle, was made almost entirely from the metal. Since then, all of NASA’s spacecraft, including Skylab, the space shuttles, and the international space station, have been made of between 50% and 90% aluminum. 

Today, aluminum remains vital to the aerospace industry. This is true both in military and commercial aircraft. U.S. Navy planes, for example, use structural components made from fabricated wrought aluminum. Meanwhile, commercial aircraft are typically 80% aluminum by weight, including the use of aluminium sheet in their construction. Fuselages, wings, supporting structures—all are generally made from aluminum.

As for the future of aerospace development, Lockheed Martin is currently using aluminum in its development of the Orion spacecraft for NASA. Scheduled to launch by the end of the 2020s, the Orion vehicles are being designed to take astronauts on deep-space missions including to the moon and the vicinity of Mars. Once again, aluminum offers the perfect solution for such missions because of its high strength-to-weight ratio.

What Can Aluminum Do for You?

Of course, no metal is perfect for every project, and it’s important to carefully consider what your product needs to do before you choose your materials. CNC aluminum offers the best of many worlds because it is easily machinable, relatively cheap, lightweight, and durable.