NASA Launching High-Tech Inflatable Heat Shield Test Saturday
By Leonard DavidPublished July 17, 2012When you think of the blistering, brutal re-entry temperature...
Published on: Mar 3, 2016
Transcripts - NASA Launching High-Tech Inflatable Heat Shield Test Saturday
NASA Launching High-Tech Inflatable Heat Shield Test
By Leonard David
Published July 17, 2012
When you think of the blistering, brutal re-entry temperatures generated by plowing through Earth's
atmosphere, using fabric doesn't come quickly to mind.
But NASA is set to try some fabric out this Saturday (July 21), as part of a novel inflatable re-entry
experiment that could find a variety of uses, both off planet and possibly in returning payloads from
the International Space Station as well.
The Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment III, or IRVE-3, has been years in the making for all of 20
minutes of suborbital flight. It will be rocketed to high altitude above Earth from NASA's Wallops
Flight Facility near Chincoteague Island, Va., then will dive into the Atlantic Ocean.
It's all "science friction" -- pushing the envelope, quite literally, while trying to beat the heat of
Launching a space balloon
A three-stage Black Brant 11 suborbital rocket will hurl the 680-pound (309-kilogram) IRVE-3
skyward, said F. McNeil "(Neil") Cheatwood, principal investigator for the IRVE program at NASA's
Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. [Photos: NASA's Inflatable Heat Shield Ideas for
The uninflated IRVE-3 is carefully stuffed into a flight bag that fits inside the rocket's nose cone.
Once IRVE-3 is released at its target altitude, its high-tech inner tubes will be inflated by nitrogen to
give the experimental heat shield a mushroom shape.
The ready-for-re-entry contour is made of layers of silicone-coated industrial fabric. As the tubes are
inflated, they stretch out a thermal blanket covering them to create a heat shield known as an
During re-entry, video cameras will transmit images to the Wallops control room to confirm that the
IRVE-3 is holding up during its heat-defying trek. Instruments on board will also transmit
temperature and pressure data to researchers for later analysis.
A rigorous ground test program of IRVE-3's thermal protection system has already been performed
using a number of facilities, Cheatwood told SPACE.com. But the upcoming flight will use the
Earth's atmosphere as a wind tunnel in the sky for the ultimate test, he said.
IRVE-3 will be lobbed some 350 miles (560 kilometers) downrange into Atlantic Ocean waters.
A game- changing technology
NASA's Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT) is behind the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic
Decelerator (HIAD) project, under which the IRVE-3 experiment is being carried out. IRVE work is
one venture within the office's OCT's Game Changing Development program for new space
Testing of the IRVE over the years has seen both malfunction and success. A booster failure cut
short its first flight in September 2007.
"The original Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment was designed to demonstrate that inflatable
structures could inflate, remain inflated, and maintain stability," said Kathy Barnstorff, a Langley
center spokeswoman for the project. "However, IRVE encountered a failure after launch in which the
IRVE instrument was unable to separate from the metal payload cylinder surrounding it."
Building on success
In August 2009, IRVE scored its first success. Riding on a Black Brant 9 rocket, the booster reached
a high point of 131 miles (211 km), where it began its descent to supersonic speed. Less than a
minute later the IRVE-2 was released to inflate in less than 90 seconds at an altitude of 124 miles
Cheatwood recalls that the 2009 flight verified the IRVE was stable when it was inflated to its
profile. It behaved like a rigid blunt body of the same shape, he said, making it through the heat
"The experiment really was ... just to take us through the heat pulse. It was like a 30-second
experiment, officially," Cheatwood added. "It flew right through supersonic, transonic, into
IRVE-3 is the same size -- nearly 10 feet wide (3 meters) when inflated -- as the other two.
"IRVE-3 is launching on a larger rocket which will take it to a higher altitude," Barnstorff told
SPACE.com. "It will come back in with a higher velocity and more heating than IRVE-2 saw. IRVE-3
will see about 10 times the heating that IRVE-2 did. It's a heavier payload, which also contributes to
the higher heat levels."
Using atmospheres on other worlds
Cheatwood said that work is ongoing in thermal protection materials that can take even greater heat
loads. "That would let us handle higher heat rates, which means we could be smaller in diameter,"
On the inflatable space structures side, there's also an eye toward building larger test articles,
HIAD-inspired technology is seen as ideal for use on NASA missions, be they to Mars, Venus or even
Titan -- the largest moon of Saturn. For example, far more precise landings on the Red Planet of
robotic craft on the Red Planet are feasible. But the technology is envisioned to be scalable for
piloted expeditions to Mars, too.
Adopting inflatable heat shields could lead to landing more mass on Mars at higher surface
elevations. The larger the diameter of a protective aeroshell, the bigger the payload can be.
The HIAD work can also be applied to Earth-returning payloads let loose from the International
Already being sketched out is the High Energy Atmospheric Re-entry Test (HEART) -- a design
concept for a flight test that would utilize larger inflatable re-entry technology with a diameter of
almost 30 feet (8 meters).
Here's the bottom line for Cheatwood: "If a planet has an atmosphere ... we can use it."
Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is a winner
of last year's National Space Club Press Award and a past editor-in-chief of the National Space
Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines. He has written for SPACE.com since 1999.