Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Space Shuttle Enterprise insulation sample

This week, a photo of—and a physical relic from—the prototype Space Shuttle, Enterprise.

Construction work on NASA’s first Space Shuttle orbiter, serial OV-101, commenced on 4 June 1974 at the Rockwell International plant in Downey, California. (Rockwell International is today part of Boeing; the plant in Downey was closed in 1999.)

While development continued on the various shuttle subsystems, NASA planned to use this prototype for a variety of airframe tests before refitting her as an actual spacecraft. OV-101 was therefore constructed without engines or any of the associated plumbing for them. In place of the heat-shield tiles that form the thermal protection system (TPS) of an operational shuttle, she was fitted with blocks of polyurethane foam. On her nose, she carried a needle-like air data probe taken from a U-2 spyplane. This probe was to be used in aerodynamic tests of the orbiter in flight, both in “captive” mode mounted on a carrier aircraft, and flying free as a glider.

Although Enterprise was always destined for space, it eventually turned out to be easier and cheaper to refit NASA’s full-size engineering test airframe into a functional spacecraft than to refit Enterprise. Therefore, the shuttle program’s static test article (STA-099) became an orbiter (OV-099, Challenger) and Enterprise was destined for publicity tours and eventually to become a museum piece.

This photo shows the orbiter in 1983, being prepared for an appearance at that year’s Paris Air Show:

The following year, Enterprise appeared at the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition, and in 1985 was stripped of useful components in preparation for museum display. During this process, on 29 April 1985, insulation material was removed from Enterprise’s payload bay doors.

This is a small sample of that insulation, which I obtained from David Bryant of The Space Station in the UK, together with provenance tracing the ownership of the sample between NASA and him:

The insulation is matting made from some kind of fine synthetic fibre with some heavier strands running through it. Bright white, it has an almost silvery sheen. The box in which the sample lies is around 8 cm × 5.5 cm (3” × 2”). The accompanying scrapping paperwork from NASA identifies it as “Type III, 3 lb/ft3, 2300° F” (48 kg/m3, 1260° C).

On 18 November 1985, Enterprise arrived in Washington DC and NASA transferred ownership to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, marking the first space shuttle’s official retirement. She remained there on display until 27 April 2012, when shuttle Discovery took her place at the Smithsonian and Enterprise was transferred to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City.

When I first published this post, I misidentified the photo as Enterprise undergoing final assembly at the Rockwell International plant in Palmdale, California, sometime in 1975 or 1976. Further research identified the correct point in Enterprise’s career, and the correct copyright status of the image.

Copyright information: the photo of Enterprise is  a NASA image, part of the Dryden Flight Research Center collection, serial EC83-24309. As a work of the US federal government, it is in the public domain. 

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