Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

The iconic, orange external tank of the space shuttle launch system not only contains the fuel used by the shuttle’s main engines during liftoff but also comprises the shuttle’s “backbone,” supporting the space shuttle orbiter and solid rocket boosters. Given the tank’s structural importance and the extreme forces (7.8 million pounds of thrust load) and temperatures it encounters during launch, the welds used to construct the tank must be highly reliable.

Variable polarity plasma arc welding, developed for manufacturing the external tank and later employed for building the International Space Station, was until 1994 the best process for joining the aluminum alloys used during construction. That year, Marshall Space Flight Center engineers began experimenting with a relatively new welding technique called friction stir welding (FSW), developed in 1991 by The Welding Institute, of Cambridge, England. FSW differs from traditional fusion welding in that it is a solid-state welding technique, using frictional heat and motion to join structural components without actually melting any of the material. The weld is created by a shouldered pin tool that is plunged into the seam of the materials to be joined. The tool traverses the line while rotating at high speeds, generating friction that heats and softens—but does not melt—the metal. (The heat produced approaches about 80 percent of the metal’s melting temperature.) The pin tool’s rotation crushes and stirs the “plasticized” metal, extruding it along the seam as the tool moves forward. The material cools and consolidates, resulting in a weld with superior mechanical properties as compared to those weld properties of fusion welds.

The innovative FSW technology promises a number of attractive benefits. Because the welded materials are not melted, many of the undesirables associated with fusion welding—porosity, cracking, shrinkage, and distortion of the weld—are minimized or avoided. The process is more energy efficient, safe (no toxic smoke or shielding gas, liquid metal splatter, arcing, dangerous voltage, or radiation), and environmentally sound (no consumables, fumes, or noise) than fusion welding. Under computer control, an automated FSW machine can create welds with high reproducibility, improving efficiency and overall quality of manufactured materials. The process also allows for welding dissimilar metals as well as those metals considered to be “unweldable” such as the 7xxx series aluminum alloys. Its effectiveness and versatility makes FSW useful for aerospace, rail, automotive, marine, and military applications.

The retractable pin tool developed at Marshall Space Flight Center fully enables friction stir welding (FSW) for circumferential and tapered thickness welds, like those needed to assemble the space shuttle’s external tank.
A downside to FSW, however, is the keyhole opening left in the weld when the FSW pin tool exits the weld joint. This is a significant problem when using the FSW process to join circumferential structures such as pipes and storage containers. Furthermore, weld joints that taper in material thickness also present problems when using the conventional FSW pin tool, because the threaded pin rotating within the weld joint material is a fixed length. There must be capability for the rotating pin to both increase and decrease in length in real time while welding the tapered material. (Both circumferential and tapered thickness weldments are found in the space shuttle external tank.) Marshall engineers addressed both the keyhole and tapered material thickness problems by developing the auto-adjustable pin tool. This unique piece of equipment automatically withdraws the pin into the tool’s shoulder for keyhole closeout. In addition, the auto-adjustable pin tool retracts, or shortens, the rotating pin while welding a weld joint that tapers from one thickness to a thinner thickness. This year, the impact of the Marshall innovation was recognized with an “Excellence in Technology Transfer Award” from the Federal Laboratory Consortium.
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