The National Space Society vision is people living and working in space

08 March 1996
NSS Press Release describing NASA's upcoming testing of advanced ceramic heat-shield for possible use in the X-33 RLV program.

For Immediate Release

Contact: David Brandt


Washington (March 8) -- In a major step to validate new technology for the X-33 Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) Program, NASA will test samples of two advanced ceramic heat-shield tiles on the Space Shuttle Columbia as it re-enters the atmosphere at the end of its current mission. Landing is currently scheduled for Saturday morning at the Kennedy Space Center, with two windows of opportunity - either 7:24 or 8:59 a.m Eastern Time.

"NASA's RLV program is innovating new and better ways to protect launch vehicles from high temperatures experienced during reentry through the atmosphere," said Lori Garver, Executive Director of the National Space Society. "The new technology is being designed to dramatically reduce the time and cost of maintenance between RLV flights."

The Space Shuttle requires an army of personnel to inspect and replace damaged tiles after each mission. For the RLV program, NASA is working in partnership with private industry to create a new thermal protection system that is lightweight and can be used repeatedly requiring minimal maintenance.

The advanced ceramic tiles tested on the Shuttle orbiter will be flown on the vehicle's underbelly and near the rear engines where tiles regularly experience much damage. According to engineers, the new ceramic material is an order of magnitude better than the Shuttle's current tile technology.

"Developing a low-cost, low-maintenance thermal protection system is one of the major goals of the RLV program," Garver said. "Engineers also are designing fuel tanks that can be used repeatedly, and upgrading rocket engines so they don't have to be rebuilt after each flight."


NASA plans two additional Space Shuttle missions to test new thermal protection materials. On the next mission of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, (targeted for launch on March 21,) the orbiter will be NASA will equipped with advanced "blankets," or ceramic material covering large areas of the orbiter that experience lower temperatures during reentry, such as top surfaces of the wing and parts of the fuselage. Tiles generally are about six inches square, while blankets can be as large as four feet by eight feet.

In June, NASA will test two metallic thermal protection systems, one made of Inconel, an alloy of nickel, chromium and iron that can withstand extreme high temperatures of 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, and the other made of titanium, which can sustain temperatures of 1100 degrees Fahrenheit. Both systems use a honeycomb design and are about one-inch thick including layers of insulation.

"NASA is flying the different thermal protection systems to see which one will work best for the RLV," Garver said. "With the new technology, engineers predict servicing between missions will be reduced to a matter of days."


NASA initiated the RLV program in 1994. It is an innovative partnership with private industry to develop and validate the new technology needed to build a completely reusable launch vehicle. To test the new systems and technology, NASA and industry will build an experimental, small-scale RLV prototype dubbed the X-33.

Three aerospace companies are offering competing designs for the test vehicle. This summer NASA will make a final selection, then begin construction. After the X-33 has been built and tested, NASA hopes private industry will be in a position to fully fund, build, and operate a full-scale RLV.

The new launch vehicle is being designed to optimize efficiency and to keep operational costs to a minimum," Garver said. "It represents a quantum leap forward to making space travel routine and substantially reducing costs."

The RLV program will give America a competitive edge in the global market for launching commercial payloads and create new high-paying jobs. By reducing the cost of space transportation, the vehicle also opens new opportunities for the commercialization of space.

The National Space Society is a grassroots organization of over 27,000 members and 80 chapters in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia and the United Kingdom. NSS publishes the bimonthly Ad Astra magazine, sponsors the annual International Space Development Conference (1996 site - New York, NY) and hosts the NSS FORUM on America Online and publishes several World Wide Web homepages.

Visit NSS online on AOL at the keyword "NSS".

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