NASA said the LOFTID test of an inflatable heat shield, seen here after recovery form the Pacific, was a success. Credit: NASA/Greg Swanson

WASHINGTON — The success of a NASA project last year to demonstrate an inflatable heat shield has attracted interest from several companies who are working with the agency to advance the technology.

NASA flew last November the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) as a secondary payload on the Atlas 5 launch of the JPSS-2 weather satellite. LOFTID deployed an inflatable heat shield six meters across that survived reentry and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.

Before the flight United Launch Alliance showed an interest in the technology as part of its Sensible Modular Autonomous Return Technology (SMART) concept for recovering the booster engine section of its Vulcan rocket, and helped support the LOFTID flight opportunity. ULA is now working with NASA through a Space Act Agreement on advancing the LOFTID technology.

The partnership with ULA would involve an aeroshell 10 meters across. “We’re currently working with them now designing that,” said Joe Del Corso, project manager for LOFTID at the Langley Research Center, during a Nov. 30 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s technology committee. That includes an upcoming preliminary design review of the larger aeroshell.

Going to that larger size, he said, involves increasing the diameter of the torus sections that make up the inflatable decelerator as well as inflating them to a higher pressure. “This is a huge jump in the technology, but they’re basically paying for it.”

ULA is not the only company that has approached NASA about the LOFTID technology. “These folks are coming to the table going, ‘Hey, we have an application. We see that it’s been used. You’ve validated the technology,’” he said.

Among them is Outpost, a startup proposing commercial reentry systems that would use inflatable systems like those on LOFTID. “We’re not sure whether they’re going to go forward,” Del Corso said of Outpost. “They’re a smaller company that can’t necessarily afford NASA’s current way of doing business.”

NASA is also working with other companies that he declined to identify other than they are “bigger names” in the industry. Those companies, he said, are looking at even larger aeroshells 18 to 20 meters across for applications he did not disclose.

Another company that was involved in the LOFTID flight was Blue Origin. “At the 11th hour, Blue Origin came in and paid for SCIFLI,” NASA’s Scientifically Calibrated In-Flight Imagery team at Langley, which collected data of LOFTID’s reentry from an aircraft. He didn’t discuss Blue Origin’s interest in the technology or any future applications of it by the company.

Those partnerships, Del Corso said, are helping advance work on large-scale inflatable decelerators that NASA sees as a key technology for future human missions to Mars, although he noted that the agency can’t solely rely on industry to mature it. “These companies that we’re working with have needs that are filling a lot of the gaps in technology, but that doesn’t absolve NASA from having to continue to invest.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...