The project for an inflatable heat shield was saved by a rocket engineer.
No one was wounded in 2014 when a commercial rocket blew up seconds after liftoff off the Virginia coast, and NASA replenished the essential supplies headed for the space station.
However, few individuals were aware of the explosion’s wide-ranging effects at the time. Without that rocket, NASA’s Langley Research Center would not have had a way to test its $93 million inflatable heat shield in space, which is the hardware being developed to land astronauts on Mars in the 2030s, according to Joe Del Corso, the project manager at Langley. Without that rocket, the future of human-led Mars exploration hung in the balance.
“We got shut down,” he said.
However, someone who was not a member of the American space agency had been observing. The experiment’s answer was put out by Bernard Kutter, who was United Launch Alliance’s chief technologist at the time. Now, on November 1, at 2:25 a.m. PT, Vandenberg Space Force Base will launch the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator, or LOFTID for short. NASA will be able to use the mission to conduct a critical demonstration for the Martian landing hardware, even if it is not the main objective for this launch (a new weather observatory for tracking storms globally is also onboard).
“He only came up to us and said, “I’ve got an idea,” right after Orb-3 [exploded]. This can be useful. Can you demonstrate that a ride we provide you works?” said Del Corso. “We promised to accomplish it,”
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On August 12, 2020, Kutter, an engineer that many in the field of aerospace technology have referred to as a visionary, passed away before he could complete the mission. His family never learned the precise cause of his heart failure that morning. He was 55.
Unknown to the general public, Kutter’s cremated remains will also fly on a NASA inflatable heat shield test that will soon circle the planet over the North and South poles, realising a lifetime goal of his to travel in space. On the container containing his ashes are the Latin words ad astra, which translate as “to the stars.”
Kutter will be one of the select few individuals whose cremated remains have been interred in space, sometimes known as a “space burial.” Clyde Tombaugh, the man credited with discovering Pluto a century ago, was cremated and his ashes were carried aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft when it made its historic maiden trip there sixteen years ago.
Can you demonstrate that a ride we provide you works?
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Space memorials, however, could become much more regular as the commercial space economy grows with more firms like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, according to Charles Chafer, CEO of Celestis, a private business that has carried out 18 such trips since 1997. About 1,500 deceased people have received similar services from Celestis, including the late Gene Roddenberry, who created Star Trek. By the end of this year, the company expects that number to reach 2,000.
Ash hitches rides on rockets as a supplementary cargo, therefore they are not the primary propulsion system for the mission. A flight aboard Celestis used to occur every 1.5 years on average. Five flights are currently scheduled for the next 14 months. Chafer attributes the rise in demand to the easier availability to space and the steadily increasing popularity of cremation as a burial option.
The customers the business services typically fall into one of three categories: either they have a deep spiritual yearning to merge with the universe, or their relatives want to give them a grand send-off.
When people attend our services, Chafer told Mashable, “you’ll never see as much applauding and high-fiving at a burial.”
What I tell them is that our services feature more cheering and high-fives than funerals ever do.
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The cost of a suborbital flight to deliver cremated remains to surviving family members starts at $2,500, while the cost of a voyage into Earth’s orbit, where the contents would eventually burn up upon re-entering the atmosphere, is $5,000. According to the company’s website, a voyage into outer space would cost more than $12,000.
Neither has Celestis ever “launched” ashes into space in the manner in which sailors do so at sea.
Chafer emphasised their opposition to introducing more trash into space by saying, “We are space-sustainability fanatics here, if you will. When you start releasing material into orbit, it’s all moving at 17,000 miles per hour and can cause a lot of harm.
Kayla Kutter will witness her maiden rocket launch as part of NASA and ULA’s homage to her late father. She and several of her family members had never been to a rocket launch, despite his career in the field. In order to attend the occasion and bid farewell to the mission that has also been officially named after Kutter, Kayla plans to travel to California with her husband, brother, mother, uncle, and grandmother.
When her father was three years old, he and his mother saw the first Apollo moon landing on television. He asked her if she had ever been there before, unaware of the moment’s historic significance. Naturally, she denied having done so. He then had his heart and mind made up.
She remarked, “His dream was to take his mom to space.”
Why an inflatable heat shield
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Prior to his passing, Kutter worked on developing innovative strategies for lowering the cost of space travel. He observed NASA Langley’s work on the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, or HIAD project, from a distance since he was aware that it would be a useful technology for ULA.
Engineers have used the same rigid heat shield to land spacecraft on Mars ever since the first unmanned Viking mission to Mars more than 50 years ago. Even the NASA rovers Curiosity and Perseverance, which touched down in 2012 and 2021 respectively, utilised a hard shell for their heat shields, a design whose size was constrained by the rocket’s nose cone.
However, the more drag the heat shield can remove from the Martian atmosphere, the more weight it can land on the surface, even astronauts one day. The same method might enable ULA to salvage some of its most pricey equipment and return heavy cargo from low-Earth orbit.
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Kutter understood that it would be a game-changer if an inflatable heat shield could allow the industry to reuse rocket engines. According to Del Corso, he had already begun sketching out the location of an inflatable heat shield that would be installed on the company’s new Vulcan engines.
Kutter thought about how to guide the business towards the developing cislunar economy, the market between Earth and the moon. He rarely discussed such matters with his family. He was more concerned with supporting his children and their interests at home.
Kayla remarked, “He was always extremely there with us. Whatever position he held at ULA, whatever pressures he was under at work, he didn’t bring it to us.