NASA Does Space-Age Archaeology, Uncovering Apollo Heatshields to Help with Orion

by Ian O'Neill on October 9, 2008

Matt Gasch of NASA Ames and Betsy Pugel of NASA Goddard examine the remains of a 1966 Apollo test vehicle heat shield (Smithsonian Museum/Eric Long)

NASA Ames and Goddard scientists examine the 1966 remains (Smithsonian Museum/Eric Long)

NASA scientists currently working on the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle had the rare opportunity to unpack a little piece of history. A visit to Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum led them to uncover crates containing the heat shields used during the development of the Apollo Program, some 35 years ago. The shielding has not seen light of day since 1966 when it was dropped from low Earth orbit and protected a test vehicle from fiery re-entry. The NASA scientists hope to learn more about the thermal response of the old heat shield to improve the shielding of the Orion return vessel a whole generation after the pioneering lunar missions…

On July 31st and August 1st, the NASA crew descended on Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum Garber Facility to do a bit of space-age archaeology. The facility makes it their job to collect, preserve and restore anything space and aircraft related, ensuring the Apollo heatshieilds were in perfect condition (or as “perfect” as they can be after undergoing re-entry over three decades ago) for the Orion development teams from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California. What they unpacked was a space geek’s dream.

We started working together at the end of June to track down any Apollo-era heat shields that they had in storage,” said Elizabeth Pugel from the Detector Systems Branch at Goddard. “We located one and opened it. It was like a nerd Christmas for us!

Scientists examine the 1966 Apollo test vehicle heat shield (Smithsonian Museum/Eric Long)

Scientists examine the 1966 Apollo test vehicle heat shield (Smithsonian Museum/Eric Long)

The NASA team managed to eventually track down heat shield material from a test re-entry from low Earth orbit on August 26th, 1966. This material will prove useful in the continuing development of the Constellation Program’s Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle so more information can be gained about the material’s reaction to extreme heat as it was dropped through the atmosphere.

We are examining the design of the carrier structure (the metal structure that connects the heat shield to the vessel that contains the astronauts) and the heat shield material’s thermal response,” Pugel added.

The Smithsonian has been generous in their providing large pieces of the heat shield that we will be doing destructive and non-destructive testing on during the months before Orion’s Preliminary Design Review,” said Matthew Gasch from NASA Ames. “This information will further our confidence in our design and materials development.”

It might seem strange that NASA scientists are researching re-entry technology from the Apollo era, after all the Orion cone-like design borrows its shape from the Apollo Program’s Saturn V Command Module (amongst others), but that is where the 20th century similarity ends. Orion will be packed with the most advanced 21st century computing, electronics, life support, propulsion and heat protection systems.

Orion aside, I would have loved to have been there when the NASA Orion scientists cracked open the wooden Apollo crates (using crowbars, naturally), to find them filled with the dusty artefacts from the beginning of the space age (but then again, I might be watching way too much Indiana Jones movies…).

Source: NASA


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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog:, be sure to check it out!

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