Monday, July 25, 2011

Space Shuttle Tile In Hand


And I mean that literally. I held a Space Shuttle tile in my hand. This was actually back in June at the Tweetup media event at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but looking back now, I am surprised they didn't have these all over the place at KSC!

These, of course, are what constitute the Thermal Protection System applied to each shuttle orbiter so that their integrity stays sound throughout missions.

Space Shuttle Tile
Side A and Side B

Many of us will get to see Shuttle Orbiters up close soon in nearby museums, and I'm betting they will have some tiles to handle... so remember these fun facts!

- TPS tiles form the skin that separates the shuttle craft and its crew from temperatures over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1090 Celsius) as it moves through Earth's atmosphere.

- About 70% of the orbiter's exterior must be covered, requiring over 22,000 tiles per craft. No two tiles are alike, and each must be applied by hand.

- The color scheme of the Space Shuttle isn't accidental. It is separated into black and white, as are its tiles, so engineers know what to use and where!

- White areas are covered with "Low-Temperature Re-usable Surface Insulation" or LRSI, designed for temperatures 650 C or 1,200 F or below.

- Black areas are covered with "High-Temperature Re-usable Surface Insulation" or HRSI, designed for temperatures above the the limit of the LRSI and on up to 1275 C and 2300 F! WOW.

Shuttle Tiles Display
Click for Original Size

There are wonderful displays about the TPS at NASA Stennis and NASA Kennedy, and many thousands will continue to be distributed to schools around the USA.

Back at the JPL, I had the honor of meeting Todd Barber, a veteran and/or ongoing guru for some of the most amazing projects NASA has going: Galileo, Stardust, Cassini, EPOXI... and most recently, he has been working on the Mars Exploratino Rover (MER) missions.

It's no exaggeration to say he is not just a propulsion engineer; he is THE propulsion engineer! And here he is, babysitting the Tweeps with a shuttle tile...

NASA Propulsion Engineer Todd Barber

And Todd's right! You really can do this with a Shuttle Tile. Here is a video of someone who put it to the test with a blowtorch and their own hand.

While poking around to research the history of TPS development, I found some fascinating old videos from the 1970s showing the development of the tiles, as well as more recent explanations of abalation and how the tile structure evolved over time with the use of sand... watch the engineers cook up a batch of modern tiles!