Space Shuttle Challenger - Flown LRSI Tile Fragment
Space Shuttle Challenger - Flown LRSI Tile Fragment
This specimen is a mission-flown tile fragment from the Space Shuttle Challenger. Known as a low-temperature surface insulation tile (LRSI), the tile is comprised of low-density silica. The tiles protected parts of the orbiter exposed to temperatures in excess of 1,200°F and below 0°F.
FIRST LAUNCH: April 4, 1983 - TOTAL DISTANCE TRAVELED: 25,803,939 miles
SPACE SHUTTLE CHALLENGER
"What are we doing here? We're reaching for the stars." ~ Christa McAuliffe (1948-1986)
Above: A stylized view of NASA image STS07-32-1702. Taken on June 22, 1983, during Challenger's second mission (STS-7).
The Space Shuttle Challenger (OV-099) was the second space shuttle to enter orbit, embarking on its maiden voyage on April 4, 1983. Over the course of its ten missions, the shuttle gathered scientific data, repaired satellites, and brought the first African-American to space, Guion Bluford.
📸 Space Shuttle Challenger LRSI Tile with typical NASA scrap tags. Note: STS-17 was renumbered STS-41-G.
MISSION-FLOWN LRSI TILE
As noted above, this specimen is a mission-flown tile fragment from the Space Shuttle Challenger. Known as a low-temperature surface insulation tile (LRSI), the tile is comprised of low-density silica. The tiles protected parts of the orbiter exposed to temperatures in excess of 1,200°F and below 0°F.
Each tile was unique, specifically designed to meet the exact shape, weight, and temperature resistance required at its location on the craft. NASA disposition paperwork received with this item indicates this particular tile was removed after the Challenger's sixth mission (STS-41-G) which flew on October 5, 1984.
📸 Closeup of the reverse side of the tile
The red coating on the back side of the tile is actually a silicone adhesive called RTV 560. This phenyl methyl silicone is filled with iron oxide, hence the red color. It has high heat conductivity and was used as the main TPS adhesive. You can read more about these adhesives and much more in the NASA Technical Report "Outgassing Products from Orbiter TPS Materials".
It's not unusual to have tiles replaced as they are designed just for this purpose, but STS-41-G was unusual as a significant number of tiles were damaged during the mission. After careful review, NASA engineers discovered that faulty waterproofing used throughout the Thermal Protection System (TPS) allowed debonding of the tiles. To correct the problem, workers removed and replaced over 4,000 tiles.
A MATERIAL ENGINEERING TRIUMPH
THE SPACE SHUTTLE'S THERMAL PROTECTION SYSTEM (TPS)
While the Space Shuttle orbiter's structural skin consisted of a graphite epoxy over aluminum, the spacecraft would require a Thermal Protection System (TPS) capable of withstanding peak temperatures between 752 °F to 2300 °F during reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. The insulation system used to cover the metal orbiter frame consisted of different layers of protection, each specifically designed to meet the aerodynamics, weight, and temperature requirements at each location on the orbiter's shell.
📸 Space Shuttle Discovery photographed by astronaut Stephen K. Robinson during the third extravehicular activities session of STS-114 (Image Credit: NASA/S114-E-6405, August 3, 2005)
Structure of a Shuttle Tile
The three main layers of passive thermal protection systems include:
RCC - Reinforced Carbon-carbon panels on critical surfaces such as the wing-leading edges.
LRSI - white Low-Temperature Reusable Surface Insulation tiles protecting against extremely low temperatures in outer space.
HRSI - 20,000 black High-Temperature Reusable Surface Insulation Tiles protecting 90% of the spacecraft surface from high temperature extremes.
📸 Shuttle Tile Assembly and Parts from "Coatings and Surface Treatments for Reusable Entry Systems" (Image Credit: Sylvia M. Johnson, NASA Ames Research Center)
📸 Why yes, we do have an original NASA cafeteria tray at MMHQ. What else would we use for special luncheons?
Each hand-cut specimen is housed in an acrylic jar and ships in a classic, glass-topped riker display case.Specimens measure roughly, 6mmx5mm though variations in shape will occur as the material is rather difficult to cut. A small information card is also included, which serves as the certificate of authenticity.
Special Handling Notice:We have not stabilized this material. So while the silica is not toxic, it will powder under pressure. If you choose to handle the specimen, please do so with extreme care. We also recommend using gloves as the silica will coat your fingers and can be irritating.
Front of the Specimen Card
Back of the Specimen Card
More about the Space Shuttle Program and Challenger (OV-099)
Above: The first launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger (STS-6, April 4, 1983). (Source Department of Defense image DF-SC-84-01865)
NASA's Space Shuttle program delivered 133 successful missions during its three decades in operation, beginning with Columbia's inaugural mission in 1981 and concluding with Atlantis' final mission in 2011. Missions involved many vital tasks, such as maintaining the International Space Station, repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, and deploying satellites. Scientific experiments featured heavily in the rotation, using the reusable Spacelab developed by the ESA.
📸 Challenger hitches a ride on NASA's Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), NASA 905. The ferry flight took the orbiter to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for its first launch. (NASA Image EC82-21135 July 4, 1982)
The Space Shuttle Challenger was the second of the space shuttles in the program to enter orbit, embarking on its maiden voyage on April 4, 1983. Over the course of its ten missions, the shuttle gathered scientific data, repaired satellites, and brought the first African-American to space, Guion Bluford. However, despite Challenger’s many achievements, it is remembered in history for its tragic final flight.
STS-51L: THE TRAGIC END OF CHALLENGER AND HER CREW
Above: STS-51L crew members Michael J. Smith, front row left, Francis R. "Dick" Scobee, Ronald E. McNair; Ellison S. Onizuka, back row left, S. Christa McAuliffe, Gregory B. Jarvis, and Judith A. Resnik. (NASA Image S85-44253 November, 1985)
On January 28, 1986, Challenger began its final flight (STS-51L), disintegrating 73 seconds after takeoff. The explosion was caused by the failure of O-ring seals in the shuttle’s rocket booster, which allowed pressurized gas to burn through to the booster's fuel tank. This horrific event ended with the deaths of all onboard crew members, which led to a brief suspension of shuttle flights and an overhaul of both the program itself and NASA's organizational structure.
Each year, NASA holds a Day of Remembrance to honor those who lost their lives while furthering the space exploration. We welcome you to visit their site to learn more about men and women of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia. For a deeper view on Challenger and STS-51L, we recommend John Uri's 2021 touching retrospective of the crew on the 35th anniversary of the disaster: " 35 Years Ago: Remembering Challenger and Her Crew".
McDonald, Allan J., and James R. Hansen. Truth, Lies, and O-rings: inside the space shuttle challenger disaster. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009.
Vaughan, Diane. The Challenger launch decision: Risky technology, culture, and deviance at NASA. University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Burgess, Colin. Teacher in space: Christa McAuliffe and the Challenger legacy. U of Nebraska Press, 2000.
Lamoreux, James C., James D. Siekierski, and JP Nick Carter. "Space Shuttle thermal protection system inspection by 3D imaging laser radar." Laser Radar Technology and Applications IX. Vol. 5412. SPIE, 2004.
PITTS, W., and D. KOURTIDES. "Ceramic insulation/multifoil composite for thermal protection of reentry spacecraft." 24th Thermophysics Conference. 1989.
Linton, Roger C., Ann F. Whitaker, and Miria M. Finckenor. "Space environment durability of beta cloth in LDEF thermal blankets." LDEF Materials Results for Spacecraft Applications (1993).
Harris, Richard, Michael Stewart, and William Koenig. "Thermal Protection Systems Technology Transfer from Apollo and Space Shuttle to the Orion Program." 2018 AIAA SPACE and Astronautics Forum and Exposition. 2018.
Jenkins, Dennis R. Space shuttle: the history of the National Space Transportation System: the first 100 missions. DR Jenkins, 2001.
Jenkins, Dennis R. Space Shuttle: Developing an Icon: 1972-2013. Specialty Press, 2016.