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!”
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…).