Return to Human Space Flight home page

High-Temperature Reusable Surface Insulation Tiles

The HRSI tiles are made of a low-density, high-purity silica 99.8-percent amorphous fiber (fibers derived from common sand, 1 to 2 mils thick) insulation that is made rigid by ceramic bonding. Because 90 percent of the tile is void and the remaining 10 percent is material, the tile weighs approximately 9 pounds per cubic foot. A slurry containing fibers mixed with water is frame-cast to form soft, porous blocks to which a collodial silica binder solution is added. When it is sintered, a rigid block is produced that is cut into quarters and then machined to the precise dimensions required for individual tiles.

HRSI tiles vary in thickness from 1 inch to 5 inches. The variable thickness is determined by the heat load encountered during entry. Generally, the HRSI tiles are thicker at the forward areas of the orbiter and thinner toward the aft end. Except for closeout areas, the HRSI tiles are nominally 6- by 6-inch squares. The HRSI tiles vary in sizes and shapes in the closeout areas on the orbiter. The HRSI tiles withstand on-orbit cold soak conditions, repeated heating and cooling thermal shock and extreme acoustic environments (165 decibels) at launch.

For example, an HRSI tile taken from a 2,300 F oven can be immersed in cold water without damage. Surface heat dissipates so quickly that an uncoated tile can be held by its edges with an ungloved hand seconds after removal from the oven while its interior still glows red.

The HRSI tiles are coated on the top and sides with a mixture of powdered tetrasilicide and borosilicate glass with a liquid carrier. This material is sprayed on the tile to coating thicknesses of 16 to 18 mils. The coated tiles then are placed in an oven and heated to a temperature of 2,300 F. This results in a black, waterproof glossy coating that has a surface emittance of 0.85 and a solar absorptance of about 0.85. After the ceramic coating heating process, the remaining silica fibers are treated with a silicon resin to provide bulk waterproofing.

Note that the tiles cannot withstand airframe load deformation; therefore, stress isolation is necessary between the tiles and the orbiter structure. This isolation is provided by a strain isolation pad. SIPs isolate the tiles from the orbiter's structural deflections, expansions and acoustic excitation, thereby preventing stress failure in the tiles. The SIPs are thermal isolators made of Nomex felt material supplied in thicknesses of 0.090, 0.115 or 0.160 inch. SIPs are bonded to the tiles, and the SIP and tile assembly is bonded to the orbiter structure by an RTV process.

Nomex felt is a basic aramid fiber. The fibers are 2 deniers in fineness, 3 inches long and crimped. They are loaded into a carding machine that untangles the clumps of fibers and combs them to make a tenuous mass of lengthwise-oriented, relatively parallel fibers called a web. The cross-lapped web is fed into a loom, where it is lightly needled into a batt. Generally, two such batts are placed face-to-face and needled together to form felt. The felt then is subjected to a multineedle pass process until the desired strength is reached. The needled felt is calendered to stabilize at a thickness of 0.16 inch to 0.40 inch by passing through heated rollers at selected pressures. The calendered material is heat-set at approximately 500 F to thermally stabilize the felt.

The RTV silicon adhesive is applied to the orbiter surface in a layer approximately 0.008 inch thick. The very thin bond line reduces weight and minimizes the thermal expansion at temperatures of 500 F during entry and temperatures below minus 170 F on orbit. The tile/SIP bond is cured at room temperature under pressure applied by vacuum bags.

Since the tiles thermally expand or contract very little compared to the orbiter structure, it is necessary to leave gaps of 25 to 65 mils between them to prevent tile-to-tile contact. Nomex felt material insulation is required in the bottom of the gap between tiles. It is referred to as a filler bar. The material, supplied in thicknesses corresponding to the SIPs', is cut into strips 0.75 inch wide and is bonded to the structure. The filler bar is waterproof and temperature-resistant up to approximately 800 F, topside exposure.

SIP introduces stress concentrations at the needled fiber bundles. This results in localized failure in the tile just above the RTV bond line. To solve this problem, the inner surface of the tile is densified to distribute the load more uniformly. The densification process was developed from a Ludox ammonia-stabilized binder. When mixed with silica slip particles, it becomes a cement. When mixed with water, it dries to a finished hard surface. A silica-tetraboride coloring agent is mixed with the compound for penetration identification. Several coats of the pigmented Ludox slip slurry are brush-painted on the SIP/tile bond interface and allowed to air-dry for 24 hours. A heat treatment and other processing are done before installation. The densification coating penetrates the tile to a depth of 0.125 inch, and the strength and stiffness of the tile and SIP system are increased by a factor of two.

There are two different densities of HRSI tiles. The first weighs 22 pounds per cubic foot and is used in all areas around the nose and main landing gears, nose cap interface, wing leading edge, RCC/HRSI interface, external tank/orbiter umbilical doors, vent doors and vertical stabilizer leading edge. The remaining areas use tiles that weigh 9 pounds per cubic foot.


Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 04/07/2002
Web Accessibility and Policy Notices