NASA picks heat shield team

NASA has selected Boeing and Textron Systems to develop alternate heat shield materials for the Orion crew exploration spacecraft.

The two contracts for Alternate Block 2 Thermal Protection System (TPS) Materials and Heat Shield Systems Advanced Development will support development and testing of three alternative heat shield materials, designs and manufacturing processes. Under the contracts, the companies will work to ensure the technologies are mature enough to become viable backups if there are difficulties with the primary material.

NASA’s Constellation Program is developing Orion as America‘s primary vehicle for future human space exploration. Orion will carry astronauts to the International Space Station by 2015, with a goal of landing astronauts on the moon no later than 2020. The Orion TPS Advanced Development Project, led by AmesResearchCenter, was established to develop a heat shield to protect Orion during its return from low-Earth orbit or the moon.

In September 2006, Boeing was awarded a contract to develop the primary heat shield material, Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA), manufactured by its subcontractor, Fiber Materials. The alternate materials will be developed fully only if the primary material does not perform to Orion Project specifications. NASA will assess and evaluate all of the Alternate Block 2 TPS materials through initial testing and select the most promising of the materials for further development, if needed.

The Alternate Block 2 contract awarded to Boeing has an approximate value of $10m, including all options, and calls for Boeing to perform early investigation of a proprietary material, the Boeing Phenolic Ablator (BPA).

The contract awarded to Textron has a value of approximately $24m, including all options, and calls for Textron Systems to perform early investigation of two proprietary material options, Avcoat (used on Apollo) and Dual Layer.

Each contract has a 16-month performance period from May 4, 2007, until August 31, 2008.