A Launch to Remember (Part 2)

Our first post in this series, “A Launch to Remember,” was on Friday, April 22. Scroll down, or click HERE to read from the beginning.

For the past two years, a part of what we’ve been up to in our day jobs is building a collection of NASA related materials at the Leatherby Libraries. NASA has been divesting itself of an extraordinary range of its material culture through the GSAXcess website. When we first started requesting items in the fall of 2009, artifacts from the earliest NASA human-rated programs, Mercury and Gemini, were still available. There were also items such as crew clothing from Apollo.

So why aren’t we sporting Michael Collins’s spare spacesuit? The request process is set up so that government affiliated institutions, such as the National Air and Space Museum, get first pick. In the end, we didn’t get any Apollo-era goodies, but it was a beautiful dream while it lasted.

That said, we didn’t come up empty handed. In fact, we have received a number of items, and we are expecting more as the space shuttle program heads off into the sunset (or moonrise). On December 1, 2010, NASA announced an adjunct to the larger artifacts program in the form of a giveaway of space shuttle tiles. As a qualifying entity (a university library in this case), we immediately dashed off our request. Our piece of tile arrived just over three months later.

Pulling the bubble-wrapped packaging out of the shipping box revealed a black-and-white block roughly five inches by five inches and about two inches thick.  The tile was shrink-wrapped itself, and the lone documentation in the box, attesting to the tile’s authenticity, cautions against removing the wrapping. In a bit of irony to which we’ve grown accustomed recently, the document indicates that the “silica material in Shuttle tiles is not classified as hazardous. However, material from the silica fiber layer can cause temporary irritation of the throat and/or itching of the eyes and skin. Touching a bare tile should be avoided.” (The emphasis is all NASA’s.) That’s the old government lawyerese two-step: this isn’t dangerous when it’s doing what it’s designed for (i.e., protecting the space shuttle from the searing heat of reentry), but if you touch it, you might regret it.

The first thing that everyone notices when handling the tile is just how ridiculously light it is. This leads a lot of people to speculate that the white underside is made of polystyrene, which goes by a common brand name. In reality, the silica material is lighter than polystyrene by virtue of the fact that it is 94% air by volume. (For more on the Orbiter Thermal Protection System, including the LI-900 silica, click HERE.) The tile’s black and white coloration makes it seem as if the block has two halves. In fact, it is all one piece of silica, and the black part is a glass coating added to the tile to both waterproof it and enhance its heat sink properties.

The next thing that people notice is the sequence of numbers that has been painted onto the tile. In the case of our piece of the tile, the number is V070-396050 -020 -008043. The number can be used to recreate an identical tile if necessary, and it also serves as a bit of metadata about the tile, giving information such as:  1) the kind of tile type, of which there are at least four—HRSI, FRCI, TUFI, and LRSI; 2) the shuttle orbiter; and 3)  the  installation location on the orbiter. A kind friend of the Leatherby Libraries was able to use our tile’s identification number to track down its history. Our tile is of the 9lb high-temperature reusable surface insulation (HRSI) type. The 9lb designation means that the material weighs nine pounds per cubic foot. The tile was originally installed on the left, Orbital Maneuvering System pod. These are the two humps that you see at the base of the shuttle’s horizontal stabilizer. The OMS pods can be removed from the shuttle orbiter, and they are, to some degree, interchangeable (excepting the right/left symmetry). Our tile was originally attached to pod #021. Our tile never flew; for some reason it was removed and replaced on July 14, 1982. This particular pod, OMS021, was initially attached to either Challenger or Columbia, but our reliable friend was unable to verify this piece of information precisely.

As we consider our trip to Cape Canaveral later this week, holding this tile in our hands reminds us that each shuttle is made of myriad upon myriad little pieces, all fit together in a particular way. Likewise, each of the machines pieces represents the work of many individuals, all working individually and in sync to make the penultimate space shuttle mission go smoothly.


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