Shuttle thermal protection system chosen

Space Shuttle concept artPotential contractors for NASA’s upcoming Space Shuttle offer specs based on their final design studies, which still assume that the shuttle’s giant booster will be a manned, winged vehicle in its own right that will return to a runway on Earth after its fuel is used up. One thing that both studies suggest, however, is an aluminum airframe which requires a shift away from the ablative metallic heat shields of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. A system of carbon-reinforced “shingles” is suggested as an alternative, and is approved by NASA, though developing the technology to create, install and maintain these tiles delays the first Shuttle launch into the 1980s, and the tiles are still prone to damage during both launch and re-entry – a weakness that will eventually seal the end of the Space Shuttle era.