The Re-entry Problem

[Let me preface this thought by admitting that I know nothing of metallurgy and atmospheric science. I know very little about aerodynamics and flight, and what little I know of physics/chemistry can be summed up by the failures I’ve witnessed in the kitchen.]

A few months ago, at random, a question popped into my head. Without anniversary or scientific discovery or news article. It was there again this morning; 6:13 on a Saturday morning, and this is the stuff that surfaces.

Why did we lose the Columbia?

As history records, a six-pound chunk of foam from the Space Shuttle’s external fuel tank broke off and banged the orbiter’s wing during takeoff. A week later, on Feb. 1, 2003, tragedy struck during re-entry. The intense heat ate through the hull. The ship and her crew were lost, almost exactly 17 years after the Challenger was lost.

We now know, without pointing specific fingers, that human error was to blame for both incidents. The remainder of the shuttle fleet was grounded, and the United States is still, in 2016, without a working space vehicle system.

[Focus in on the word random, here.]

One of the few things writers and engineers have in common (other than being upright, oxygen-dependent homo sapiens) is that we’re big thinkers. We ask a lot of questions out of curiosity, seeking out solution and potential. There is no problem that cannot be solved, that kind of nonsense. (Is it nonsense?)

Now, going back to my admittedly scant knowledge of space travel, I understand the problem of re-entry (the linchpin of Humankind’s journey to the stars) to be one of physics. Earth’s atmosphere–wonderful, life-giving bubble that she is–doesn’t like to admit guests without proper attire. In this case, hitting the atmosphere at the correct angle so that heat-resistant surfaces can do their jobs against the rapid temperature spike involving oxygen molecules and friction. If the problem can be simulated and overcome in James Bond and Clint Eastwood movies (unless I’m mistaken about “Moonraker” and “Space Cowboys”) then it’s something pedestrian enough for the general populace, and myself, to understand. According to these dodgy sources, as well, the process of re-entry takes several minutes of careful flight (with the vehicle in question going 25,000 miles-per-hour). No problem!

[One of the fun cheats about “Star Wars” (and, to some extent, “Star Trek”) is that they blithely ignore this whole re-entry issue. It’s just not part of the physics of that world, and the dialogue doesn’t get bogged down with concern over tight seals, thruster tank capacity, etc. (In “Star Trek”, they’d throw up a heat shield as casually as ordering a coffee.)]

Dealing with these and other issues realistically is, to me, part of what makes Andy Weir’s brilliant “The Martian” so much fun. Everything had to be accounted for. Mark Watney has to “ghettoize” the MAV-4 (his ride off the red rock) and we’re laughing. Taking the nose-cone off the ship, and replacing it with parachute material, seems loony. Yet, in theory, it would work (because he’s in a space suit).

Well, couldn’t something of the opposite be true?

Unless my memory’s completely off the mark, my Uncle Artie used to install the heat-resistant tiles on the bottom of the space shuttle (working for McDonnell-Douglas, I believe). “The shuttle needs heat tiles?” Yes. Otherwise, disaster. As we’ve seen.


The question I pose to the scientific and engineering community (if only for the sake of argument): Isn’t there a better way?

The solution I’m picturing (and will probably model with Legos) would be a heat-resistant piece roughly the shape of an arrowhead. Maybe the carbon-fiber material used on Boeing’s 787s would be the trick. (If we can “glassify” spent nuclear fuel, how come we can’t overcome the heat of re-entry?) The piece would be in two halves, fitting along the axis with four or five “nesting” layers, with the hole thing attached to and covering the nose of the vehicle in question. The way I picture it, this part would loosely enclose the front 25-30 feet of the vehicle. Then (and this is where I really show off my ignorance) the shuttle vehicle points straight at the planet like a bullet. The faster it gets through the atmosphere, the less time for that nasty heat issue to create problems. The nose-cover part takes all the heat, and the duration of this tricky part is reduced to less than a minute (at such high velocity).

Then (cue the ‘brilliance’ music) the piece splits in two once the vehicle’s safely in the atmosphere. They fall away from the shuttle, with special parachutes extending from the back to ensure eight tons of smoking metal doesn’t crash down on Delhi or Perth. The shuttle vehicle pulls out of its earthward dive, banks like a plane, and proceeds to land at the Space Center of choice.

[Nifty diagrams coming.]

Maybe you even target doing these re-entries over Australia, where the hole in the ozone layer offers even less friction-based heat. Truth, or rubbish?

Oh, where does this all-important piece come from? Build them here, take them up with rockets and park a bunch with the ISS. Give it a cool acronym (F.R.E.C.S. for Fancy Re-Entry Cup System?) and start funding that puppy.

Space exploration and missions to Mars are all great endeavors. But it has to start with being able to bring our people home safely.