Why Ceramic Coatings Were Used In The Space Shuttle’s Thermal Protection System (TPS)


Years ago when the Apollo Space Program was underway,  everyone “Rhino Shield Jax” watch the re-entry capsule plunge into the sea and await rescue once their mission was over. The technology wasn’t available for a reusable space ship. There main goal was to construct a craft that would withstand the re-entry process without completely disintegrating.  Can we safely take a man into outer space and bring him back to Earth alive was the question that many great minds at that time worked on.  They hadn’t quite worked on cost effective missions because each vehicle was a single use.

With the introduction of Silica and Ceramic technology, NASA now could think of the possibility of actually creating a working reusable space craft.  The problem scientist faced with re-entry, was the extreme temperatures caused by the friction of the Earth’s atmosphere pressing upon the craft as it sliced through the stratosphere at a 40 degree angle at thousands of miles per hour. An aluminum hull could not withstand the 3000* F that was surely to burn the craft up like it was a meteor falling from the heavens shooting across the sky, until it at last disappeared from disintegration.

The 1960’s way of thinking was to withstand that kind of heat a material would have to be very dense, and dense meant heavy. Weight was always a problem with space flight. The heavier the cargo the more fuel was needed. The more fuel the heavier the payload. Needless to say calculations had to be spot on without any room for era.

Now thermal sprays have been around for almost 100 years. More less a type of plating a metal with a molten wire or molten particles of a sort to increase the durability of the metal and performance. These methods have greatly advanced since then.

With the design of the Space Shuttle, it had to be aerodynamic for flying back home so it does resemble an airplane, although  it really works more like a large glider, as it uses the gravity of the Earth for its propulsion on re-entry.  The concept of creating  Ceramic Silica coated TPS tiles was designed to be able to replace bad tiles as they eventually wore out. The tiles are glued to the hull not fastened  so it maintains flexibility.


They are light weight in design mostly made of air and Styrofoam with a thin Silica based Ceramic Coating as a thermal layer of protection.  There are many different kinds of TPS tiles on the Space Shuttle for different areas of the craft that require different levels of protection. Now that the Space Shuttle has retired, we are looking forward to the next step in space flight evolution with even better thermal cooling technology.

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