Columbia Mission Crew

We have all seen images of matter entering the Earth's atmosphere leaving a flaming trail in its wake. The intensity of the heat created during the launch and re-entry of a space shuttle requires levels of thermal insulation beyond anything we use on Earth, and as you can imagine, there are special requirements for space insulation. The realities of having a space ship which was equipped with poor quality thermal insulation were made tragically clear in 2003 as the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re entry, killing all seven crew members. So what are the differences between earthly and out of this world thermal insulation?

Well, in space, the sun's heat cannot be attenuated as there is no atmosphere, which means heat cannot be conducted to other objects and convective heat transfers cannot occur either. Consequently, the surfaces of a space shuttle will heat up extremely quickly and to an unbearable level. Thermal insulation in the form of special paint or a gold foil substance is attached to the outer surfaces of the shuttle to reduce the amount of heat entering the space ship. Insulating materials are also necessary around heat producing components such as the fuel tanks. However, the materials cannot be thick or heavy as extra mass attached to a shuttle during launch adds extra costs onto the mission, very large costs.

Pressure levels in space and during launch and re entry are immense, and materials used in the space ship need to be extremely strong and able to resist break up. The nose cone is often made from reinforced carbon-carbon composite whilst the tiles that cover the surface of the shuttle are silica. The properties of these materials are strong enough to withhold the stresses put on the vehicle, withholding astronomical temperatures and pressure.

Unfortunately, the best example to use which demonstrates why thermal insulation is so important in space exploration is the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. Columbia was NASA's first space worthy shuttle in its orbital fleet. The first mission was launched on April 12 1981 and lasted two days. The shuttle made 26 successful subsequent missions into space, launching satellites, taking pictures of the universe and Earth, and servicing the Hubble Space telescope in its later years.

On 1 February, 2003, after a 16 day scientific mission, its 28th in total, Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed during re entry and all seven crew members perished. The formal investigation of the craft debris found over an area in Texas, reported that a piece of thermal insulation had peeled away from the fuel tank during take off, causing a hole to be punctured in one of the wings. This structural problem led to the disintegration of the whole shuttle as it could no longer withstand the pressure put on it as it re entered the Earth's atmosphere.

This tragic reminder of how vital proper thermal insulation is in space will not be forgotten by NASA or any other organisations in the space exploration community. Engineers are developing new materials and structures for thermal insulation all the time, and maybe one day our homes will have space age thermal insulation.

Author Mark Woodcock is a Webmaster of a wide variety of online specialty shops including a very popular site on Thermal Insulation. Visit today.


The carbon dioxide produced by astronauts on a space mission needs to be eliminated from the ari as it is detrimental to the astronauts. Engineers created a device that reacts the carbon dioxide with lithium hydroxide to produce lithium carbonate and water.

we are all chemical engineers and we have been called to help in a space Shuttle rescue mission!! Columbia Mission has failed and a rescue mission has been oorganizedIf there is only 213 kg of lithium hydroxide on board, how long does the rescue crew have to save the seven astronauts before the lithium hydroxide runs out? (1 kg CO2 produced/day/astronaut)

please explain every step that would be greatly appreciated 🙂

2LiOH + CO2 ---------- Li2CO3 + H2O
weight of CO2 = wt of LiOH [ (1)(MW of CO2)/ (2)(MW of LiOH)]
= 213 kg [(1)(44)/(2)(23.949)]
= 195.67kg CO2
Rescue time = 195.67/(1)(7)(1) = 27.95 days 27 days 22.8 hours

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