Stronger tiles, safer shuttles

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On February 5, 2003

In the wake of the Feb. 1 space shuttle Columbia tragedy, the national media spotlight turned to a couple of young faculty members in UMR’s ceramic engineering department. Greg Hilmas and Bill Fahrenholtz have just started work on a three-year, $300,000 project for the Air Force to develop ultra-high-temperature ceramic tiles — tiles that also could be used on future space shuttles.

Michelle Schaeffler, a UMR student working on the ceramic tile research, prepares to remill zirconium diboride, which is used to make a heat-resistant ceramic material. (Photo by Dean Curtis, Springfield News-Leader)

While news reporters were interested in whether such tiles would have prevented the Columbia disaster — some experts blamed the shuttle’s disintegration on damage to some of the tiles that provide heat protection — Hilmas and Fahrenholtz explain that their project is focused on the future of the space program.

Future space launch vehicles — not necessarily the blunt-nose shuttles of today — might have a sharp, pointed front and be more aerodynamic than the current shuttles, say the two assistant professors of ceramic engineering. Shuttles with pointed fronts would encounter even higher temperatures than the 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit currently encountered by the blunt-nose shuttles, this requiring even better, stronger ceramic tiles.

Although the UMR researchers’ work is funded by the Air Force, NASA would benefit from their studies by applying the findings to plans for future space travel.

Related Links

Springfield News-Leader
The Kansas City Star

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On February 5, 2003. Posted in Research