CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – United Space Alliance (USA) has a lot of experience with protecting crews returning from orbit through Earth’s atmosphere. They have been tasked to apply that expertise to preparing America’s next spacecraft, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle for upcoming missions beyond low-earth-orbit. USA’s Thermal Protection System Facility is located near the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at Kennedy Space Center.From the outside, the building is much like the rest of KSC, nondescript and beige. It was commissioned in 1988. The facility was struck by Hurricane Frances back in 2004, NASA and USA used the opportunity to renovate the facility in preparation for the future. The building is an odd juxtaposition of styles. Clean white rooms with air showers to blast off particulates in one area are separated by utilitarian work stations by stairwells painted in the glaring green circa the early Mercury Program.
Now USA is using this facility to produce the thermal protection system for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle or Orion MPCV. The facility can also be utilized to produce the thermal protection systems for other spacecraft as well, including those that are involved with NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program or CCDev.
The Thermal Protection System Facility’s Manager, Martin Wilson is steeped in the science that is involved in making the various thermal protection systems, as well as the history of the various buildings, events and players that have all played their part to where the TPSF is today.
“The tiles themselves go from what appears to be shredded tissue paper, to blocks and then eventually to the protective elements on the orbiters,” said Wilson. “We have a tremendous amount of experience with the various materials that we use here – we can dial up or down their durability and do the same with the amount of heat they can withstand.”
In the early days of the shuttle program NASA used numerous white tiles on the space shuttle fleet; however, the agency quickly moved away to using them exclusively and began using a variety of systems to protect the orbiters. Tiles, thermal blankets and Reinforced Carbon Carbon or RCC panels would all be employed to protect crews returning to Earth on the shuttle.
The tiles themselves are amazing pieces of creation. The tiles are comprised of mostly air, resistant to water and able to handle fury of atmospheric reentry. If one were to spread out all the material within a single time – it would encompass a tennis court. While the replacement of the tiles is often highlighted in the media – a simple fact is not – most of the tiles on the bottom of the orbiter (about 90 percent) are the originals. There was never any need to replace them – so the tiles that the shuttles first flew with – will be the ones that they are retired with.
With the shuttle program over, the facility’s efforts are focused toward the future.
Orion is a capsule-based system – making things for USA’s thermal protection team far simpler. It will only require one type of tile. This tile is extremely heat resistant, providing the spacecraft with protection from a variety of missions. Whether the spacecraft goes to asteroids, the Moon or some other destination – these tiles can handle the extreme heat of reentry with ease.
“The work we’re doing with Orion is the culmination on what we learned with shuttle,” Wilson said. “Given that Orion is a capsule – this makes what we’re doing simpler and we can therefore protect it with far greater efficiency.”
In the early days of human space flight, NASA employed an ablative thermal system. When a spacecraft returned to Earth, layers would peel away – carrying the heat with it. When the space shuttle came into service, an ablative system was no longer an option. NASA began to use the various elements mentioned earlier.
Originally many of the thermal protection elements for the shuttle were produced by Lockheed Martin in their Sunnyvale and Palmdale, California locations. NASA, realizing the need to have these services provided on site decided that a facility needed to be opened where the shuttles were based out of. One of the other determining factors was cost. Both of the California facilities were large and given that NASA had constructed its last orbiter by the end of the 80s – the space agency realized that these two sites were no longer needed. Now, the TPSF remains the place that NASA goes when it needs items as exotic as thermal shields – or as mundane as water bags.