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Flexible Aerogel, Innovator Earn Hall of Fame Honors
James Fesmire and Janet Petro

Image above: Kennedy Space Center senior principal investigator James Fesmire, left, and Deputy Director Janet Petro at the 28th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., on April 19. Image credit: Space Foundation/Thomas Kimmell
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International Space Station experiment cryogenic freezer, called a Glacier unit

Image above: A cold storage team member checks an International Space Station experiment cryogenic freezer, called a Glacier unit, inside the Space Station Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center on March 2. The freezer utilizes the aerogel blanket technology which is targeted to launch aboard the Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) Dragon capsule. Image credit: NASA/Amanda Diller
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Aerogel blankets were used to protect critical systems from the extremely cold hydrogen used to launch NASA's space shuttles.

Image above: Aerogel blankets were used to protect critical systems from the extremely cold hydrogen used to launch NASA's space shuttles. Image credit: NASA
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A technology called flexible aerogel that originated in a research lab at Kennedy Space Center and its senior principal investigator James Fesmire were inducted into the International Space Foundation's Space Technology Hall of Fame during the 28th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., on April 19.

During the past 10 years, aerogel blankets have been used inside the space shuttle and on a number of ground support systems, including the launch tower and vehicle umbilicals. Aerogel blankets also were used for insulation on the space shuttle external fuel tank's hydrogen vent umbilical system interface connection.

This technology could be applied to cryogenic pipes and tank insulation on future space launch systems and in thermal protection systems on crew vehicle exteriors.

Fesmire, the senior principal investigator of the Cryogenics Test Laboratory at Kennedy, received an Innovating Individuals award for his work in pioneering the technology. Aspen Aerogels Inc. of Northborough, Mass., and Aspen Systems Inc. of Marlborough, Mass., received the Innovating Organizations award for their role in producing flexible aerogels for commercial use.

"I'm thankful for the privilege to work at Kennedy and serve NASA by helping to develop this new aerogel blanket technology," Fesmire said. "The thermal insulation applications are conserving energy for our nation and changing the world for the better."

Aspen Aerogels Vice President of Research and Development George Gould said that it takes a long time and a huge amount of effort and investment to develop commercially useful materials-based technology.

The aerogel blankets are critical in NASA's current research and development funded by the Office of the Chief Technologist for new intelligent composite materials for future thermal management in space vehicles, exploration and habitation applications.

Fesmire said the aerogel blanket materials are used for a number of space cold chain articles, such as the Glacier late-load demonstration test for SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule at Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Glacier is a cryogenic freezer for the International Space Station and future vehicles.

Fesmire said he first got the idea for flexible aerogels in 1992 and led the development of the technology through NASA's Small Business Innovation Research Program with startup company Aspen Systems Inc. starting in 1993. This initial work also paralleled his founding of the Cryogenics Test Laboratory at Kennedy in 1997 with industry partner Dr. Stan Augustynowicz.

The aerogel originally was developed to serve as a barrier to the extreme temperatures that occur during rocket launches and that affect spacecraft as they are exposed to high heat and severe cold.

To meet NASA's needs for efficient launch vehicles and facilities, Fesmire collaborated with Aspen Systems to produce affordable and easy-to-use aerogel composite blankets for space applications.

"Materials that we can now buy as needed from Aspen Aerogels have become an absolute staple in the design and construction of equipment and facilities and a critical part of the future research work for space launch and exploration," Fesmire said.

"The aerogel blanket doesn’t absorb water, is mechanically robust and is the best insulator in the world," Fesmire said. "It can go where other insulators cannot."

Commercial applications include sub-sea piping for oil and gas, liquefied natural gas terminals and ships, building construction, outdoor apparel and numerous consumer goods, including stadium seats and shoe inserts. Fesmire said there also may be future applications in the arenas of hydrogen-powered transportation and superconducting electrical power transmission, and he is looking for inroads with the Departments of Energy and Homeland Security and the U.S. Navy.

"These products give engineers, designers and architects access to very high-performance and affordable insulation that is uniquely thin and light, and we will see many new technologies emerge that are enabled by flexible aerogel blanket insulations for years to come," Gould said.

Fesmire previously received the NASA Exceptional Technology Achievement Medal in 2009, and the R&D 100 Award for Flexible Aerogel Superinsulation with Aspen Aerogels in 2003.

"I think it is a good thing, and what citizens expect, for NASA to foster the creative work and innovation to help make industry go and solve problems in the world," Fesmire said. "I am very thankful to have been given the opportunity to be a part of such long-range work with the contributions of so many people and see it come to success."

Linda Herridge
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center