In an almost entirely windowless metal building on the campus of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton sits the black, dome-shaped culmination of a $93 million project.
It’s a heat shield, about 20 feet in diameter, that one day could help to land cargo and crew missions on Mars or anywhere else that has an atmosphere. Its purpose is to create drag and slow a space vehicle for reentry. It could also have commercial uses, like allowing for engines sent into space to be retrieved from space and reused, and bringing items back that have been manufactured in space, said Barb Egan, program manager at United Launch Alliance, a corporate partner of NASA.
Wednesday afternoon, NASA officials gave the public a glimpse of the space travel technology that is the latest in a long line of heat shields, and larger than any of its predecessors, which allows it to carry heavier loads at greater altitudes. That’s important because to sustain human life on Mars, astronauts need to be able to put 20 to 40 metric tons of cargo on the planet’s surface, said Joe Del Corso, the project manager.
In November, the shield will be tested in a launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. It’s riding along with a United Launch Alliance weather satellite and will then land in the ocean off the coast of Hawaii where researchers will recover the hardware — if they can find it, said Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations for the Space Technology Mission Directorate, which develops tech for missions.
She said the heat shield could be used in a mission to Mars in the mid-2030s.
Del Corso said a volcano diver sponsored by National Geographic has already approached them about using it for a jump from space. “We said this isn’t the right technology yet. I’m not going to risk somebody’s life yet,” he said.
The upcoming test launch has personal significance for the people who have worked on the project because it’s named in honor of Bernard Kutter, the manager of advanced programs at ULA, who died in 2020. Egan said he was passionate about low cost access to space and new technologies.
A container of his ashes will be launched with the heat shield, said Del Corso, who described Kutter as a “great engineer.” The ashes will return with the reentry vehicle so they can be given back to his family.
The project has gone through challenges, including funding constraints, a government shutdown delay and the pandemic, which temporarily forced everyone off the Langley property, said Del Corso, but those involved are excited about its potential.
Clayton Turner, the director of the research center, said it’s “not a piece of hardware, but a path to a new future.”
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