Christmas comes early for NASA heat shield nerds

NASA researchers looking to develop the next generation of heat shields are using a treasure trove of recently rediscovered Apollo-era armor to build high-temperature protection for future space flights.

NASA researchers said they recently uncrated 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. The Garber Facility consists of 32 buildings and a staff dedicated to collecting, preserving and restoring all manner of air and space equipment, including airplanes, spacecraft, engines and spacesuits.

"We started working together at the end of June to track down any Apollo-era heat shields that they had in storage," said Elizabeth Pugel of the Detector Systems Branch at NASA Goddard in a release. "We located one and opened it. It was like a nerd Christmas for us!"

Ultimately the shields will be used for research and help the NASA scientists develop more advanced heat protection for the planned Orion space mission. The metal structure that connected the Apollo heat shield to the spacecraft and the heat shield material's thermal response is 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.

That larger size will let Orion seat four crew members on missions to the moon, and six on missions to the International Space Station or Mars-bound spacecraft. Orion, which is part and parcel of NASA's overarching Constellation program is scheduled to fly its first missions to the space station by 2014 and carry out its first moon flight by 2020.

Boeing is working with NASA Ames to develop the flight heat shield design. The company completed a developmental heat shield last Fall. That system, known as Boeing's Thermal Protection System (TPS) Manufacturing Demonstration Unit (MDU) is fabricated from Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA) material. The material is lightweight and has an efficient rate of burn, known as ablative. Such materials actually burn to deflect heat off the surface. PICA is being considered for Orion's heat shield due to its proven performance on NASA's Stardust spacecraft heat shield. Each piece is significantly larger than typical space shuttle tiles, greatly reducing parts count and complexity, Boeing said. Final work is expected to be completed by 2009.

In March NASA showed off the first mock up of its Orion space capsule ahead of the capsule's first emergency astronaut escape system test. NASA in late 2008, said it will jettison the full-size structural model off a simulated launch pad at the US Army's White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.