The completion of NASA’s final space shuttle mission last month left some Americans feeling mixed emotions. For those of us in the petroleum or fire protection industry, the impact of the space program reachers much further than our nostalgic memories of shuttle launches.
Armed with some of the nation’s top scientists, engineers and researchers, NASA possessed capabilities to complete highly detailed material science experiments to aid in shuttle design. This invaluable knowledge revolutionized industrial fire protection worldwide.
NASA’s Glenn Research Center, which is still in operation today, often worked in unison with college and university scientists to test and analyze the effects of high temperature fires. Between 1995 and 2003, NASA partnered with universities to complete intensive flame spread research. The findings influenced recent standards and recommendations for building and construction materials published by the American Society for Testing Materials®, Underwriter’s Laboratories® and the National Fire Protection Association®.
Throughout the era of the shuttle program, NASA designed, engineered and tested several variations of their Thermal Protection System, which protected shuttles from severe temperatures during reentry to earth. A key component in the construction of these fire resistant systems, the shuttle tiles, have represented leading fire resistant technology for decades.
These “tile[s] performed wonderfully,” said former NASA shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore in a discussion about shuttle fire resistance. Over their many years of use, shuttle tiles evolved from low-temperature ceramic based tiles to high-temperature insulation tiles made from a fibrous, silica material.
Designed to withstand temperatures of 2,300°F (1,260°C), shuttle tiles provided critical fire protection allowing shuttles to safely reenter the earth’s atmosphere. While no form of passive fire protection, even shuttle tiles, can withstand such high temperatures for extended periods of time, NASA’s improvements brought momentum to industrial fire protection.
As we close a chapter of NASA funded fire protection research, those in the fire protection industry must focus on research and development now more than ever.
Has the end of the shuttle program affected your company’s research and development efforts in any way?
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