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Apollo-era heat shields may be used for Orion

Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong working at an equipment storage area on the lunar module. This is one of the few photos that show Armstrong during the moonwalk. NASA photo

WASHINGTON, DC (BNS): Scientists are working out the possibilities of utilising Apollo heat shields for the next generation space exploration vehicle. The heat shields were used three decades ago on the Apollo series, including a mission that landed Americans on the moon.

The Apollo program was designed to land humans on the Moon and bring them safely back to Earth. According to NASA, six of the missions --Apollos 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17 were able to achieve this goal.

The heat sheets from the era were accessed from the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum facility where several space and aviation related items have been preserved. Scientists working on NASA's Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle project had visited the facility recently. The heat shields are being analysed to find out if they could be used.

Scientists from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and Ames Research Center, Moffett, were part of the team. “We started working together at the end of June to track down any Apollo-era heat shields that they had in store,” Elizabeth (Betsy) Pugel of the Detector Systems Branch at NASA said.

She said the discovery of heat shields was like ‘a nerd Christmas for us’. The team was interested in the old heat shield material as Apollo had flown into low Earth Orbit before returning to Earth on August 26, 1966.

“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,” she said.

Matthew Gasch, a research scientist at Ames said they had collected large pieces of the heat shield, which would be put through destructive and non-destructive testing before Orion's preliminary design review.

Orion, expected to be launched at the beginning of next decade, would carry crew and cargo to the space station. It will meet with a lunar landing module and an Earth departure stage in low-Earth orbit to carry crews to the Moon. It is also expected to take Mars bound vehicles assembled in low-Earth orbit.

Orion's design is based on the previous capsules but it would have much advanced electronic and computer systems on board. Its shape would be similar to Apollo but much bigger in size. That is why the heat shields used on Apollo may be used on it. It might help the vehicle when it re-enters Earth's atmosphere especially when returning directly from the moon.

NASA is working on the project as a Constellation Program to send human explorers back to the Moon and then onward to Mars and other destinations in the Solar System.

Orion orbits the Moon with disc shaped solar arrays tracking the Sun to generate electricity. It is being developed along with International Space Station using the space shuttle before it retires in 2010.

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