Last summer, astronauts on the STS-114 mission tested the system on a tile during a spacewalk. “The crew was able to use the tool without incident or concern,” says Steve Poulos, NASA’s former manager of the shuttle’s thermal systems.
Engineers are completing ground tests of how the wash would perform with different types of tile damage. “It’s not a panacea,” Poulos says, but the wash can make a marginal tile safer.
For bigger dings, astronauts may bolt on a 12- by 25-inch plate of carbon-silicon carbide composite. The plates are just .03 inch thick but are expected to provide the same thermal protections the original tiles did.
Currently, NASA plans to include both the plates and the emittance wash on the next shuttle mission: a Discovery flight, now scheduled for May. Says Poulos: “I’m very optimistic that by the end of this year, we’ll have our repair capabilities done.”