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"[Science fiction is] nightmares and visions, always outlined by the barely possible."
- Gregory Benford

Ablative Heat (Reentry) Shield  
  A single-use shield or covering designed to accept the heat of reentry and burn off.  

Is it possible to jump out of a supersonic plane traveling at 2,000 miles per hour so high above the Earth that it is in near vacuum? Not as far as the Norheimans were concerned.

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.

Phryges, still at an altitude of over thirty thousand feet, kicked away the remaining fragments of his cocoon... Low enough at last, he pulled the ripcord.

From Triplanetary, by E.E. 'Doc' Smith.
Published by Not known in 1934
Additional resources -

This is a very early reference in science fiction to the idea of ablative cooling applied to the problem of dissipating heat upon reentry. The idea of having a flexible device that can be used by a single individual appears to be Smith's.

He probably got the idea from a careful reading of Robert H. Goddard's works:

"In the case of meteors, which enter the atmosphere with speeds as high as 30 miles per second, the interior of the meteors remains cold, and the erosion is due, to a large extent, to chipping or cracking of the suddenly heated surface. For this reason, if the outer surface of the apparatus were to consist of layers of a very infusible hard substance with layers of a poor heat conductor between, the surface would not be eroded to any considerable extent, especially as the velocity of the apparatus would not be nearly so great as that of the average meteor."
(Report concerning further developments in Space Travel, 1920)

Here's another early reference from around 1952 from the RAND corporation:

Work that began at RAND in 1952 led to the solution of the critical problem of nose-cone overheating during the reentry of a space vehicle into the earth's atmosphere. Along with the use of a blunt nose cone to dissipate heat, RAND's studies suggested the use of ablation cooling.14 The effective use of these methods was not only essential to the space program but also critical to the success of the intercontinental missile.
(From Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers.)

The US Centennial of Flight Commission has this to say:

Although various people, including Wernher von Braun and experts at Douglas Aircraft Company's Project RAND, had studied spaceflight during the 1940s, nobody began thinking about how a vehicle would actually return from space until the early 1950s. The few who did, like von Braun, realized that probably the best way to do it was to build a very big vehicle and circulate a fluid through its skin to soak up the heat of reentry... Clearly the problem of reentry to Earth's atmosphere was a significant challenge for the early spaceflight researchers, as they considered how best to overcome the heat generated by friction as a spacecraft slowed in the atmosphere. While most proposals for satellites between 1946 and 1957 avoided the difficult problem of reentry, some researchers tackled the problem with determination.
(From Early Reentry Vehicles: Blunt Bodies and Ablatives

Something similar to this was designed by Goodyear in the seventies- the concept was that this was an inflatable "escape pod" that could be used in emergencies. Space suits were required.


Airmat

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Triplanetary
  More Ideas and Technology by E.E. 'Doc' Smith
  Tech news articles related to Triplanetary
  Tech news articles related to works by E.E. 'Doc' Smith

Ablative Heat (Reentry) Shield-related news articles:
  - Boeing Thermal Protection System For Orion
  - Space Diving By Orbital Outfitters (And 'Doc' Smith)
  - 'Space Diver' To Leap From 121K Feet
  - NASA's Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator
  - Red Bull Stratos' Freefall From 24 Miles High
  - ADEPT Heat Shield Works For Mars

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Caltech's ET Laboratory Looks For New Earths
Shh! USAF's Secret X-37B Space Plane Breaks Record

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