NASA engineers almost make it look easy -- sending a rocket into the sky to test new spacecraft technology. But way before launch day there are literally years of designs, tests and re-tests to try to make sure everything goes right.
Before a spacecraft ever makes it to flight engineers and scientists try to check out as many systems as possible on the ground. Wind tunnels and laboratories are used to test materials in high heat environments and make sure inflatable structures can withstand the forces of atmospheric entry. Electronic and inflation systems are also tested while a HIAD is still on the ground. Once individual components and subsystems pass their tests, the technology is ready for the next step -- putting all the pieces together for a flight test.
Engineers at NASA's Langley Research Center have already flight tested a HIAD Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-II). In August of 2009, IRVE-II was the first successful hypersonic inflatable decelerator flight test ever conducted and proved that the concept of an inflatable heat shield was ready for the next phase of technology development.
Now the HIAD team has moved onto IRVE-3 -- a heat shield that's the same size as IRVE-II but weighs more and will go higher in altitude. IRVE-3 is set to launch on a bigger rocket than IRVE-II from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia during the summer of 2012. Since the flight test is designed to take the experiment about 287 miles in the sky, the spacecraft will go faster, so the inflatable heat shield will experience higher heating. Cameras and instruments on board will collect data on the thermal protection system and inflatable structure so engineers can see how they held up. The data collected during this test will be used to help improve future HIAD designs.