space shuttle, external tank, insulating foam, ablative material, thermal protection system


The Space Shuttle Columbia accident and the recent excitement surrounding Discovery's return to space brought excessive media attention to the foam products used on the External Tank (ET). In both cases, videos showed chunks of foam or ablative material falling away from the ET during lift off. This led to several years of investigation and research into the exact cause of the accident and potential solutions to avoid the problem in the future. Several design changes were made prior to the return to flight this year, but the ET still shed foam during lift off. Since the Columbia accident, the loss of foam on ETs has been a significant area of interest for NASA, United Space Alliance, and Lockheed Martin. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board did not evaluate alternative materials but certainly highlighted the need for change. The majority of the research previously concentrated on improving the design and/or the application process of the current materials. Within recent years, some research and testing has been done to determine if a glass microsphere composite foam would be an acceptable alternative, but this work was overcome by the need for immediate change to return the shuttle to flight in time to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. Through a better understanding of the foam products currently used on the ET, other products can be evaluated for future space shuttle flights and potential applications on new space vehicles. The material properties and the required functionality of alternative materials can be compared to the current materials to determine if suitable replacement products exist. This research also lends itself to the development of future space flight and unmanned launch vehicles. In this paper, the feasibility of alternative material for the space shuttle's external tank will be investigated. Research on what products are used on the ET and a set of functional requirements driving the selection of those materials will be presented. The material properties of the current ET foam products will be collected and an evaluation of how those materials' properties meet the functional requirements will be accomplished. Then significant research on polymeric foams and ablative materials will be completed to learn how these various products can be applied in this industry. With this research and analysis, the knowledge gained will be used to select and evaluate the effectiveness of an alternate product and to determine feasibility of a product change with the current ET and the importance of maintaining the shuttle launch schedule. This research will also be used to evaluate the potential application of the alternative product on future platforms. There are several possible outcomes to this research. This research could result in a recommended change to the ET foam material or a perfectly acceptable alternative material that could result in a cost or schedule impact if implemented. It is also possible that there exists no suitable alternative material given the existing functional requirements. In any case, the alternative material could have future applications on new space vehicles. A set of results from the research and analysis will be provided along with a recommendation on a future material for use on space vehicles.


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Graduation Date





Nayfeh, Jamal


Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering (M.S.M.E.)


College of Engineering and Computer Science


Mechanical, Materials, and Aerospace Engineering

Degree Program

Mechanical Engineering








Release Date

January 2006

Length of Campus-only Access


Access Status

Masters Thesis (Open Access)