A view of the underside of the Orbiter Atlantis on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The underside of Atlantis is covered in heat resistant tiles to protect the vehicle during reentry.
A publication on the shuttle tiles from NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate states:
A key to a successful thermal protection system for the Space Shuttle depends on two things— light weight and the ability to withstand the high temperatures of reentry.
When the space shuttle de-orbits and begins to return to Earth, it faces a serious problem due to frictional heating. Protecting the shuttle and the crew from such heat is very important. When the shuttle reenters Earth’s atmosphere at about 400,000 feet or about 122 km, it is traveling at about 25 times the speed of sound (Mach 25). It uses the friction of reentry to slow the shuttle down, but in doing so it pays a price in the form of frictional heating. Temperatures on the shuttle reach several thousand degrees. If the shuttle had a metal exterior like an airplane, it would be burn up due to the heat produced by the friction.
The tiles on the shuttle provide a means for thermal protection.
There are some 24,300 tiles that measure about six inches long on each side (15.25cm) and vary in thickness from 1 to 5 inches (2.54 to 12.7 cm) depending on where they are attached. They are made up of what is called a porous silicon material that is very light and extremely heat resistant.
There are two main types of tiles, one a black-coated tile called HRSI for High-Temperature Reusable Surface Insulation tile. These tiles can withstand up to 2,300 degrees F (1,260 degrees C). They cover the bottom of the shuttle, areas around the forward windows, and several other key areas. The densities of these tiles range from 9-22 pounds per cubic foot.
Categories: Space Age Bulletins