After a 2013 wildfire led to the loss of 19 elite Arizona firefighters, Langley Research Center engineers, including Walt Bruce and Anthony Calomino, worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service to see how NASA’s spacecraft thermal protection system could be used to create new emergency fire shelters on Earth.

Walt Bruce

NASA Tech Briefs: How did this project with the US Forest Service begin?

Walt Bruce: We were emotionally touched by the loss of 19 firefighters in Arizona. We had thought for a while that the flexible thermal protection system (TPS) technology that we’d been developing could eventually be used for other commercial applications.

NTB: What was the TPS initially designed to do?

Bruce: The TPS, for NASA’s uses, protects inflatable entry vehicles. These are going to be the primary entry, descent, and landing (EDL) architecture for delivering the kinds of hardware and support systems that are needed for human exploration of Mars.

NTB: How is it used to help firefighters?

Anthony Calomino: The heat shield has to be able to handle high-temperature heat loads and protect the underlying spacecraft. It is very similar to the fire shelters protecting the firefighter inside from the extreme temperatures outside and the fire itself. Also, the fire shelters have to be packed up. They have to be made of a very flexible type of heat shield protection material. The shelter also has to be lightweight and of a small volume. We have the same criteria with our heat shields. When we saw that, we thought this would be a good marriage.

NTB: What’s next, and when will we see this in the field?

Calomino: We’ve determined several different layups: a very thin, lightweight one that doesn’t have as good a thermal performance; one that has a medium weight, volume, and better thermal performance; and then a thicker, slightly heavier one that has better thermal performance. We’ve come up with a slightly different design where instead of laying [horizontally] on the ground, you might curl up more like you are in the fetal position. Now we have — in conjunction with an industry partner, the US Forestry Service, and the Canadian Forestry Service — fabricated 12 full-scale shelters that we are going to be taking to a live fire test. We will deploy our tents out in the forest, set intentional forest fires, and let them burn over our structures. We’ll get lots of data from that.

NTB: What is the biggest challenge in building these fire shelters?

Calomino: We know we can meet the heat flux requirement. We know we can handle the temperatures, because our heat shields perform at higher temperature and higher heat flux. The real challenge is to get this down to a small enough packed volume, meaning thin enough and light enough that the firefighter could carry them. The current shelter is 4.4 pounds.

NTB: How important is it to find Earth applications for NASA’s space technologies?

Calomino: That’s one of NASA’s mission statements: to improve life here on Earth. If we can use space or aerospace technology to help people here and improve the safety of our firefighters, I think that’s a tremendous goal.

To listen to this interview as a podcast, click here.

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