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The thermal protection system consists of various materials applied externally to the outer structural skin of the orbiter to maintain the skin within acceptable temperatures, primarily during the entry phase of the mission. The orbiter's outer structural skin is constructed primarily of aluminum and graphite epoxy.

During entry, the TPS materials protect the orbiter outer skin from temperatures above 350 F. In addition, they are reusable for 100 missions with refurbishment and maintenance. These materials perform in temperature ranges from minus 250 F in the cold soak of space to entry temperatures that reach nearly 3,000 F. The TPS also sustains the forces induced by deflections of the orbiter airframe as it responds to the various external environments. Because the thermal protection system is installed on the outside of the orbiter skin, it establishes the aerodynamics over the vehicle in addition to acting as the heat sink.

Orbiter interior temperatures also are controlled by internal insulation, heaters and purging techniques in the various phases of the mission.

The TPS is a passive system consisting of materials selected for stability at high temperatures and weight efficiency. These materials are as follows:

1. Reinforced carbon-carbon is used on the wing leading edges; the nose cap, including an area immediately aft of the nose cap on the lower surface (chine panel); and the immediate area around the forward orbiter/external tank structural attachment. RCC protects areas where temperatures exceed 2,300 F during entry.

2. Black high-temperature reusable surface insulation tiles are used in areas on the upper forward fuselage, including around the forward fuselage windows; the entire underside of the vehicle where RCC is not used; portions of the orbital maneuvering system and reaction control system pods; the leading and trailing edges of the vertical stabilizer; wing glove areas; elevon trailing edges; adjacent to the RCC on the upper wing surface; the base heat shield; the interface with wing leading edge RCC; and the upper body flap surface. The HRSI tiles protect areas where temperatures are below 2,300 F. These tiles have a black surface coating necessary for entry emittance.

3. Black tiles called fibrous refractory composite insulation were developed later in the thermal protection system program. FRCI tiles replace some of the HRSI tiles in selected areas of the orbiter.

4. Low-temperature reusable surface insulation white tiles are used in selected areas of the forward, mid-, and aft fuselages; vertical tail; upper wing; and OMS/RCS pods. These tiles protect areas where temperatures are below 1,200 F. These tiles have a white surface coating to provide better thermal characteristics on orbit.

5. After the initial delivery of Columbia from Rockwell International's Palmdale assembly facility, an advanced flexible reusable surface insulation was developed. This material consists of sewn composite quilted fabric insulation batting between two layers of white fabric that are sewn together to form a quilted blanket. AFRSI was used on Discovery and Atlantis to replace the vast majority of the LRSI tiles. Following its seventh flight, Columbia also was modified to replace most of the LRSI tiles with AFRSI. The AFRSI blankets provide improved producibility and durability, reduced fabrication and installation time and costs, and a weight reduction over that of the LRSI tiles. The AFRSI blankets protect areas where temperatures are below 1,200 F.

6. White blankets made of coated Nomex felt reusable surface insulation are used on the upper payload bay doors, portions of the midfuselage and aft fuselage sides, portions of the upper wing surface and a portion of the OMS/RCS pods. The FRSI blankets protect areas where temperatures are below 700 F.

7. Additional materials are used in other special areas. These materials are thermal panes for the windows; metal for the forward reaction control system fairings and elevon seal panels on the upper wing to elevon interface; a combination of white- and black-pigmented silica cloth for thermal barriers and gap fillers around operable penetrations, such as main and nose landing gear doors, egress and ingress flight crew side hatch, umbilical doors, elevon cove, forward RCS, RCS thrusters, midfuselage vent doors, payload bay doors, rudder/speed brake, OMS/RCS pods and gaps between TPS tiles in high differential pressure areas; and room-temperature vulcanizing material for the thick aluminum T-0 umbilicals on the sides of the orbiter aft fuselage.

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 04/07/2002
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