Rocket Science: How NASA Solved The Dangers Of Atmospheric Reentry

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Jan 26, 2017 09:29 AM EST

Space shuttle reentry is a dangerous maneuver with soaring temperatures caused by air friction. Fortunately, NASA engineers found ways to protect the shuttle crew during this crucial moment. (Photo : Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty image)

With countless space shuttle launches under its belt, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA as it is commonly referred to, make rocket science look easy. But in reality, space shuttle launches as well as its return trip counterpart called atmospheric reentry is as tricky as ever. The vacuum of space is just as hazardous to humans today as it were in the early days of space exploration.

Between launching a shuttle into space and steering it towards earth for atmospheric reentry, it would appear that former would pose a more serious challenge to scientist. After all, NASA probably spent millions of man-hours, from the early days of the Apollo mission to the reusable space shuttles, just to get the recipe right.

But atmospheric reentry presents an entirely different technical challenge as well. Some would argue that reentering the earth's atmosphere could be more dangerous than leaving it.

The main problem encountered with going back is the intense atmospheric reentry temperature. Simply put, the speed of reentering the atmosphere is so great that it creates friction with the atmosphere creating such intense heat that most types of materials, even metals, would not survive reentry. A proof of this intense heat are the meteors that regularly bombard the earth but usually never make it to the planet's surface; they simply disintegrate while still in the atmosphere due to the intense heat casued be air friction.

NASA had long ago realized this technical challenge and has developed the technology needed to overcome it. In the early days, rocket scientists made use of a heat shield made of ablative materials, a special coating on the reentry capsule that acts as a thermal insulator that slowly melts away as the capsule makes its descent, reports HowStuffWorks.

In the spaces shuttle however, NASA opted for a different technique to protect the craft from the intense heat during the atmospheric reentry. The space shuttle is coated with special heat resistant insulating tiles that are strong enough to withstand the intense heat.

NASA uses reinforced carbon carbon (RCC) tiles to cover parts of the shuttle that gets the hottest during atmospheric reentry such as its wing tips and nose section. The importance of these tiles in warding off the dangers associated with reentry was highlighted in the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster.

Upon investigation, it was revealed that Columbia's RCC tiles were damaged during launch. While the shuttle reached space safely, it did not survive its reentry to the atmosphere due to the damaged RCC insulating tile.

Meanwhile, NASA recently unveiled a new spacesuit the crew of Boeing's Starliner will be donning. In its official site, the space agency revealed that the new spacesuit incorporated cutting-edge innovations in its design resulting in a lighter and more comfortable gear complete with touchscreen-sensitive gloves.

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