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Surface Analysis and Materials Characterization for the Study of the Ceramic Tiles HRSI from the Space Shuttle Thermal Protective Systems



Hanna Szczepanowska, Thomas Brian Renegar


The orbital thermal management systems fall into two categories, ablative or reusable. The first type was successfully applied on the Apollo missions, the second was used on the Space Shuttle Orbiters. The ceramic High-temperature Reusable Surface Insulation (HRSI) tile exemplifies one of several reusable Thermal Protective Systems (TPS) which are essential in shielding the cargo of a spacecraft during reentry to the Earth's atmosphere. Surface topography of the HRSI glossy coating on unflown and flown tiles was characterized using optical confocal microscopy instruments, and surface roughness analysis to extrapolate evidence of the impact of the atmospheric reentry on the surface and to complement optical secondary electron imaging produced by Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM). The qualitative elemental analysis of the bulk material in the flown HRSI tile was characterized with Energy Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy (EDS) and referenced with available technical sources from NASA's flight manuals. This multivariate investigation of TPS's HRSI provided a basis for better understanding of the space heritage artifact such as the Space Shuttle Orbiter Discovery that recently was acquired by the National Air and Space Museum; its TPS exemplifies the technological advancement of materials used in space exploration. The authors combine their diverse experience in surface metrology and artifacts' museum analysis and preservation contributing to the knowledge of material science embodied in space heritage artifacts.
Journal of Materials Science & Technology


Space Shuttle Thermal Protective Systems, Space Heritage, Surface Metrology, atmospheric reentry, HRSI tiles


Szczepanowska, H. and Renegar, T. (2014), Surface Analysis and Materials Characterization for the Study of the Ceramic Tiles HRSI from the Space Shuttle Thermal Protective Systems, Journal of Materials Science & Technology, [online], (Accessed July 22, 2024)


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Created October 11, 2014, Updated October 12, 2021