Space Shuttle Columbia - Flown HRSI Tile Fragment
Space Shuttle Columbia - Flown HRSI Tile Fragment
This specimen is a mission-flown tile fragment from the Space Shuttle Columbia (OV-102). Known as a high-temperature surface insulation tile (HRSI), This specimen includes the black, reaction-cured glass coating designed to withstand intense heat of re-entry up to 2300°F.
Note: This specimen was acquired at auction after decommissioning.
📸 A macro image showing the profile of the specimen and the black, reaction-cured glass coating. The tip of a ballpoint pen appears for scale.
Each hand-cut specimen is housed in an acrylic jar and ships in a classic, glass-topped riker display case. Given the limited amount of material with the coating, these specimens are roughly the size of a standard Mini Museum specimen (4-5mm). 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.
Please Note: References to disposition paperwork on the specimen card are for context only. The original paperwork resides in the Mini Museum Collection. See information on the original artifact below.
Front of the Specimen Card
Back of the Specimen Card
FIRST LAUNCH: April 12, 1981 - TOTAL DISTANCE TRAVELED: 125,204,911 miles
SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA
"The powered flight took a total of about eight and a half minutes. It seemed to me it had gone by in a flash. We had gone from sitting still on the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center to traveling at 17,500 miles an hour in that eight and a half minutes. It is still mind-boggling to me. I recall making some statement on the air-to-ground radio for the benefit of my fellow astronauts, who had also been in the program a long time, that it was well worth the wait." ~ Bob Crippen, STS-1 astronaut, regarding first flight of the Space Shuttle, April, 12 1981
Above: A stylized view of NASA image S81-30498. Taken on April 12, 1981, during the first mission of the Space Shuttle Program (STS-1).
On April 12, 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia roared to life on the pad at the Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Complex 39A. Solid rocket boosters and Columbia’s own engines delivered more than 6,600,000 pounds of thrust, lifting the crew of two and 4,500,000 pounds (2,000,000 kg) of dreams into orbit at more than 17,500 miles per hour (28,163 kmh).
📸 Space Shuttle Columbia HRSI Tile with typical NASA decommissioning tags and documents.
MISSION-FLOWN HRSI TILE
As noted above, this specimen is a mission-flown tile fragment from the Space Shuttle Columbia. Known as a high-temperature surface insulation tile (HRSI), the tile is comprised of low-density silica and coated with black, reaction-cured glass designed to withstand intense heat of re-entry up to 2300°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 Columbia’s 7th mission, STS-61-C, which flew on January 12, 1986.
Please Note: The item on offer above is a fragment of this mission-flown tile. The original scrap tags and documentation remain in the Mini Museum collection. Photos here are provided for context only.
📸 Closeup of the reverse side of the tile
These high temperature tiles were actually ninety percent air, and weighed only nine pounds per cubic foot. Depending on how much heat the specific surface area needed to withstand, the tile would vary in thickness, between 1 to 5 inches. Thicker tiles protected the front of the spacecraft, and they became thinner as they progressed towards the rear of the orbiter. The tiles were a feat of materials engineering - able to withstand thermal shock without cracking or breaking, during repeated cycles of heating and cooling in outer space and during atmospheric reentry.
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".
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)
More about the Space Shuttle Program and Columbia (OV-102)
Above: A classic cutaway drawing of the Space Shuttle created by NASA artists in February, 1981. We desperately wanted to include this image in the Fourth Edition Companion Guide but we ran out of space. (Source NASA S81-30630)
NASA's Space Shuttle program delivered 133 successful missions during its three decades in operation, beginning with Columbia's inaugural launch in 1981 and concluding with Atlantis' final flight 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.
📸 The night launch of STS-61-C from Florida's Kennedy Space Center. (NASA Image STS61C-S-048 January 12, 1986)
The successful launch and return of Columbia heralded a new age in space exploration. Envisioned in the 1950’s as a fleet of reusable spacecraft, Columbia was joined by Challenger, Discovery, Endeavor, and Atlantis.
Over the course of 135 missions, the fleet delivered hundreds of astronauts and thousands of tons of materials into orbit. They also deployed satellites and served as a platform for the advancement of science while traveling more than half a billion miles during three decades of operation.
STS-107: The Tragic End of Columbia and Her Crew
Above: The crew members of STS-107 pose for the traditional in-flight crew portrait. This picture was on a roll of unprocessed film later recovered by searchers from the debris. Members of the Crew: From the left (bottom row), wearing red shirts to signify their shift’s color, are astronauts Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist; Rick D. Husband, mission commander; Laurel B. Clark, mission specialist; and Ilan Ramon, payload specialist. From the left (top row), wearing blue shirts, are astronauts David M. Brown, mission specialist; William C. McCool, pilot; and Michael P. Anderson, payload commander. Ramon represents the Israeli Space Agency.(Source: NASA Image STS107-735-032 taken between January 16th and February 1st, 2003)
On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia was lost when the craft disintegrated due to an undetected puncture in the wing. The damage occurred during liftoff but did not present a problem until re-entering the atmosphere. All seven members of the crew perished, a powerful reminder of the dangers humanity faces as they move boldly toward the stars.
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.
Ward, Jonathan H. Leinbach, Michael D. “Bringing Columbia Home: The Untold Story of a Lost Space Shuttle and Her Crew.” Arcade Publishing (2018)
Harland, David M. The space shuttle: roles, missions, and accomplishments. Vol. 2. John Wiley & Sons, 1998.
White, Rowland. Into the Black: The Extraordinary Untold Story of the First Flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the Astronauts Who Flew Her. Simon and Schuster, 2017.
Faget, Maxime A. "Space shuttle vehicle and system." U.S. Patent No. 3,702,688. 14 Nov. 1972.
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.
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.