NASA picks heat shield from hell to protect future astronauts

Orion mock-up

NASA today made one of the most important decisions for the future of its space flights - the heat shield material that will protect future space explorers from the hellish heat of space travel.

The space agency went with a technology it was quite familiar with, a fiberglass, silica, epoxy combination known as Avcoat. The heat protection technology was used on the current space shuttle missions as well as the Apollo spacecrafts, NASA said.

NASA defines the Avcoat ablator system as having "silica fibers with an epoxy-novalic resin filled in a fiberglass-phenolic honeycomb" and is manufactured directly onto the heat shield which is then attached to the crew module during spacecraft assembly.

On the blistering return through Earth's atmosphere, the module will encounter temperatures as high as 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Heating rates may be up to five times more extreme than rates for missions returning from the International Space Station, NASA said. Orion's heat shield, the dish-shaped thermal protection system at the base of the spacecraft, will endure the most heat and will erode, or "ablate," in a controlled fashion, sending heat away from the crew module during its descent through the atmosphere.

Avcoat will be used on the Orion crew module, which is part of the Constellation Program aimed at sending spacecraft and astronauts to the moon and further destinations in the solar system. The Orion crew module, which will launch atop an Ares I rocket, is targeted to begin carrying astronauts to the International Space Station in 2015 and to the moon in 2020.  

Avcoat is made by material subcontractor, Textron Defense Systems of Wilmington, Mass., in conjunction with Lockheed Martin.

Last year NASA researchers said they were testing heat shields used on Apollo missions that were being stored in the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum Garber Facility in Suitland, Md. Those shields  were used for research and help the NASA scientists develop more advanced heat protection for Orion. The metal structure that connected the Apollo heat shield to the spacecraft and the heat shield material's thermal response was of particular interest to the researchers.

According to NASA, Orion will be similar in shape to the Apollo spacecraft, but significantly larger. The Apollo-style heat shield is the best understood shape for re-entering Earth's atmosphere, especially when returning directly from the moon. Orion will be 16.5 feet in diameter and have a mass of about 25 tons. Inside, it will have more than two-and-a-half times the volume of an Apollo capsule.

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