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How do spacecraft re-enter the Earth's atmosphere?

The Descent of a Space Shuttle

Re-entering Earth is all about attitude control. And, no, this doesn't mean astronauts need to keep a positive attitude (although that's always helpful). Rather, it refers to the angle at which the spacecraft flies. Here's an overview of a shuttle descent:

  1. Leaving orbit: To slow the ship down from its extreme orbit speed, the ship flips around and actually flies backwards for a period of time. The orbital maneuvering engines (OMS) then thrust the ship out of orbit and toward Earth.

  1. Descent through atmosphere: After it's safely out of orbit, the shuttle turns nose-first again and enters the atmosphere belly-down (like a belly-flop) to take advantage of drag with its blunt bottom. Computers pull the nose up to an angle of attack (angle of descent) of about 40 degrees.

  1. Landing: If you've seen the movie "Apollo 13," you might remember that the astronauts return to Earth in their command module and land in the ocean where rescue workers pick them up. Today's space shuttles look and land much more like airplanes. Once the ship gets low enough, the commander takes over the computers and glides the shuttle to a landing strip. As it's rolling along the strip, it deploys a parachute to slow it down.

space shuttles' leading wing edge and nose
The leading edges and nose of the shuttle use RCC material.

The trip back to Earth is a hot one. Instead of the ablative materials found on the Apollo spacecraft, today's space shuttles have special heat-resistant materials and insulating tiles that can sustain re-entry heat.

  • Reinforced Carbon Carbon (RCC): This composite material covers the nose and edges of the wing, where temperatures get the hottest. In 2003, Columbia's RCC was damaged during liftoff, causing its burn-up on re-entry, killing all seven crew members.

  • broken insulation tiles
    NASA/Space Frontiers/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

    In this image, NASA workers show where the Columbia suffered tile damage during its maiden flight.

    High-temperature reusable surface insulation (HRSI)­: These black silica tiles are on the bottom of the shuttle and various other places that can reach up to 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit (1,260 degrees Celsius).

  • Fibrous Refractory Composite Insulation (FRCI): These black tiles have replaced HRSI tiles in many places because they are stronger, lighter and more heat resistant.

  • Low-temperature reusable surface insulation (LRSI): These white silica tiles are thinner than HRSI tiles and protect various areas from temperatures up to 1,200 degrees F (649 degrees C).

  • Advanced Flexible Reusable Surface Insulation (AFRSI): Made of silica glass fabric, these exterior blankets are installed on the forward upper section of a shuttle and withstand temperatures of up to 1,500 degrees F (816 degrees C). Over the years, these have taken over for much of the LRSI material on a shuttle.

  • Felt reusable surface insulation (FRSI): This material sustains temperatures of up to 700 degrees F (371 degrees C) and is made of heat-treated white Nomex felt (a material used in firefighters' protective clothing).

Take a look at the links on the next page to find out more about the challenges posed by space exploration.

Bitter Reminders
Just as the Challenger disaster in 1986 reminded us how risky shuttle launches are, the Columbia disaster reminded us just how dangerous atmospheric re-entry is. In 2003, the space shuttle Columbia and its seven crew members burned up as they were returning to Earth. After investigation, NASA discovered that damage to the left wing (that actually occurred during liftoff), let hot air in upon re-entry and caused the shuttle to lose control and burn up.



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More Great Links


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  • Day, Dwayne A. "Reentry Vehicle Technology." U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. (May 9, 2008)
  • Dumoulin, Jim. "Space Shuttle Orbiter Systems." NASA Kennedy Space Center. (May 9, 2008)
  • Hammond, Walter Edward. "Design Methodologies for Space Transportation Systems." AIAA, 2001. (May 9, 2008)
  • Jacobson, Nathan S. "As-Fabricatede Reinforced Carbon/Carbon Characterized." NASA. July, 2005. (May 9, 2008)
  • NASA. "Adventures with Apollo." Ames Research Center. (May 9, 2008)
  • NASA. "HSF - The Shuttle: Entry." NASA. Feb. 13, 2003. (May 9, 2008)
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