Attempts to store the last Soviet space shuttle in a Russian museum have caused an international row.
The Buran, or Snowstorm, was a response to the American shuttle programme but was shelved after a single unmanned test flight in 1988.
As I understand it – I am no engineer – this is about grain refinement. Other alloys use zirconium to do this – again, as I understand it, trying to get the atoms into a more ordered state, even if not into a crystal type order which gains strength etc – and the Al Li use both Li and Zr.
The Russians, facing the same technical problems, went after Al scandium alloys. Or, in fact, Al Zr Sc ones. This being better from the engineering point of view. Also a disaster from the cost one. Sc was an interesting and trivially important rare earth. No one used it for nowt. So, the entire supply chain had to be built for the one shuttle program.
This is the result of the Soviet misconception of economics. They assumed that since all value was created by labour then if people were set to labour then value was being created. They really did think this way too. Factories would be set up 2,000 km away from each other, one supplying parts to the other. Since people had to labour to transport components then value was being created, right?
So, uranium being extracted by the Caspian had some Sc in it (not unusual), a plant was built to extract it, 20 tonnes of Sc2O3 a year could be produced.
At market prices today the Li is maybe $20 a lb (as metal, what is used to make Al Li) and the Sc $1500 (metal content of oxide, what is used to make Al Sc) and there are a few applications where Sc is worth that cost. Building space shuttles ain’t one of ’em. The bits that went wrong on the US one weren’t about these alloys – not at all in fact. It was the bits that didn’t use them that did go wrong. To the point that I’ve had discussions with NASA about the next generation – the one that came to a screeching halt when the second bang happened. Seriously, on the Friday they were telling me they’d have a purchase order on the Monday for some test material, on Sunday the bang, program cancelled – about those tiles being made of these sorts of alloys instead.
As and when Berlin Wall etc this left the Soviets well ahead in the supply and understanding of Sc. Thus the lighting industry buying from there, Elon Musk asking me about Sc in Al (still the only email I’ve ever had from him) and Airbus building a wing out of Russian material and so on and on.
The world’s Sc industry was Russian because of this Buran shuttle. Fun, eh?