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Mercury Capsule Ablative Shielding

Early space capsules like those of the Mercury program used special coverings to deal with the extreme heat of re-entry. The intense heat generated by friction during the high-speed entry of the craft into the Earth's atmosphere burns away ablative (evaporating) materials on the heat shield, absorbing the heat and protecting the craft. By way of contrast, the space shuttle uses a different kind of non-ablative protection made up of thousands of heat-absorbing tiles.

Science fiction fans of the 1930's appreciate the work of EE 'Doc' Smith, who described for them a very early example of ablative heat shielding in his 1934 opus Triplanetary:

Back toward the trailing edges then, to a small escape-hatch beside which was fastened a dull black ball... He gasped as the air rushed out into near-vacuum... He rolled the ball out onto the hatch, where he opened it: two hinged hemispheres, each heavily padded with molded composition resembling sponge rubber...

...He curled up into one half of the ball; the other half closed over him and locked. The hatch opened. Ball and closely-prisoned man plummeted downward..

And as the ball bulleted downward on a screaming slant, it shrank!

...a synthetic which air-friction would erode away, molecule by molecule, so rapidly that no perceptible fragment of it would reach ground.

Thanks to Oxford Reference.

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