WASHINGTON — The Air Force Research Laboratory awarded SpaceX an $8.5 million contract to investigate advanced materials and manufacturing techniques for heat shields that protect hypersonic vehicles in flight.

Heat protection is a critical technology to shield hypersonic vehicles from the intense heat experienced when flying at more than five times the speed of sound.

The contract was from the AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate for a project called “multipurpose thermal protection systems for hypersonics.”

An AFRL spokesman said this was a competitive program with multiple bidders. The contract was awarded in December but was made public Feb. 26. News of the award was first reported by @AviationWeek

“The objective is to refine thermal protection system manufacturing technologies to enable low-cost, high volume production of next generation thermal protection systems,” said the notice of the award. 

AFRL for years has been developing technologies in support of Defense Department, Air Force and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency hypersonic vehicle programs.  

AFRL is researching advanced manufacturing technologies such as additive manufacturing for hypersonic air and space vehicles. The lab will test these techniques for the production of heat protection materials that hypersonic vehicles need to fly in extreme environments like ballistic reentry.

SpaceX has developed advanced heat shielding systems to protect the Dragon human spaceflight capsule and its next-generation Starship space exploration vehicle as they reenter the Earth’s atmosphere.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...