SpaceX Leaves Searing Impression on NASA Heat Shield Guy


Profile | Dan Rasky

Director and Co-Founder

Space Portal at NASA Research Park


Innovation Activation

Soon after he began working with SpaceX, Dan Rasky was sitting in a conference room listening to nine or 10 engineers discuss the best way to produce heat shields for the Dragon space capsule when SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk turned to him and asked, “Dan, what do you think?”

Rasky, a longtime NASA veteran and one of the inventors of the heat shield material under discussion, suggested SpaceX manufacture the heat shield in house to optimize its properties for Dragon and gain the flexibility to modify its properties for future spacecraft. What happened next shocked him. Musk said, “That’s what we are going to do.”

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk
SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk. Credit: Elliot School of International Affairs

The meeting ended, everyone left the conference room and Rasky wondered whether anyone had written down his exact words so he could review them and make sure his recommendations were good ones. At NASA, where Rasky had worked for nearly two decades, a decision of that magnitude only would have been made after multiple meetings, discussions and assessments of competing solutions.

Gradually, Rasky got used to the pace of decision-making at SpaceX, where he spent half his time from the spring of 2008 to the spring of 2009 as part of a personnel exchange between SpaceX and the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

Rasky first came to NASA Ames in 1989 from a small Silicon Valley company, Acurex Corp. He worked in Acurex’s Aerotherm Division, which conducted research and development work for the Defense Department’s ballistic missile office. Before that, Rasky earned a doctorate in materials science at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

While working for NASA, Rasky served as chief for the NASA Ames Thermal Protection Materials Branch, where he and his colleagues invented Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator (PICA), a material designed to protect spacecraft during high-speed entry in planetary atmospheres. PICA was first used on NASA’s Stardust comet return mission. PICA was named NASA’s 2007 Invention of the Year.

In 2005, Rasky co-founded the Space Portal of the NASA Research Park in Mountain View with Lynn Harper, one of the founders of the science of astrobiology; Mark Newfield, NASA Ames project manager for the Mars Exploration Rover Thermal Protection System; and Bruce Pittman, an aerospace engineer who worked on NASA satellite missions before co-founding commercial space ventures, including Kistler Aerospace Corp. and SpaceHab Inc.

Rasky spoke recently with SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner.


How did PICA come about?
When I was a new branch chief at NASA Ames, I came to the conclusion that we needed some advanced heat shield material. We had been doing work on tiles for a reusable system like the space shuttle tiles. I came to the conclusion that we needed to develop some advanced ablative heat shield materials for going to Mars or comets by making use of some of those advanced tile technologies.

Stardust sample-return capsule
NASA’s Stardust sample-return capsule at NASA’s Johnson Space Center after its January 2006 return to Earth. Credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center

Tell me about the Stardust mission.
We were working on PICA and had made pieces about the size of a coffee cup when we got a call from Dr. Ben Clark at what was then Martin Marietta, now Lockheed Martin. He had an idea for a NASA Discovery-class mission to go to a comet, get a sample and come back to Earth. To make that mission work, he needed a new heat shield material. All the materials available at the time were either not robust enough to survive the environment or were way too heavy. He heard about PICA and showed up on our doorstep.

The Stardust mission was eventually funded and flown with the PICA heat shield. How did it work?
Stardust launched in 1998, was in space for almost eight years and re-entered Earth’s atmosphere very successfully in 2006, coming in at speeds of a little under 13 kilometers per second, which is quite a bit faster than lunar return. The maximum deceleration that it encountered was 50 Gs. Stardust set the world record for the fastest entry of a human-made object into Earth’s atmosphere. It is now on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in the “Milestones of Flight” display alongside the Wright flier, Spirit of Saint Louis and Apollo 11 capsule — very nice company.

How did you come to work for SpaceX?
Elon Musk wanted PICA for Dragon. He is a physicist so he knew that a heat shield that succeeded in a comet return had a good chance of working for a Mars return mission.

Dragon heat shield
The heat shield for SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. Credit: SpaceX

What did you do at SpaceX?
We had to scale up production of PICA. We started out making things about the size of a coffee cup, went on to a prototype phase and eventually went into full-scale production. We built six blocks of PICA, measuring about 2 feet by 1 foot by 1 foot [60 centimeters by 30 centimeters by 30 centimeters], in one step in a big oven. We did that whole development in 2008 and early 2009.

When did you become interested in commercial space?
Through the 1990s, I was on all the major source evaluation boards for NASA’s Human Exploration Program space transportation systems. The ’90s weren’t the most productive time for space transportation. NASA had a number of programs that didn’t pan out: National Aerospace Plane, Reusable Launch Vehicle, X-33, X-34, Space Launch Initiative and the Orbital Space Plane. I began to wonder why we were having so much difficulty in this arena. Through programs like Stardust and Mars Pathfinder, I had worked with NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. I’d also worked on technology programs with NASA’s Aeronautics Mission Directorate. I found that even though it wasn’t all sweetness and light, in general, those directorates were more successful in accomplishing their missions.

I became convinced it was because they both had powerful external communities. The Aeronautics Mission Directorate has the whole aviation industry. The Science Mission Directorate has a powerful and vocal science community. Those external groups provided some stabilization against the political winds that blew. Because human spaceflight is driven by the administration and Congress, there is a lot of political wind blowing. I became convinced that we needed an external community for human spaceflight to counter some of the political winds, and commercial space was our best shot. I began looking in the mid-1990s for opportunities to support or advocate for the development of commercial space.

NASA Ames Research Center
NASA Ames Research Center. Credit: NASA

Is that why you founded the Space Portal?
Yes. At NASA Ames, I crossed paths with Lynn Harper, Mark Newfield and Bruce Pittman. We were all very interested in the commercial space industry and what it could do to help move NASA’s and the nation’s objectives forward. We started working together because we had this mutual interest. In late 2005, Michael Marlaire, director of the NASA Research Park at Ames, suggested Lynn, Bruce and I co-locate our offices. At that time we were located in different buildings because we all were working in different organizations. He made a building available. That’s how we came together.

Didn’t your group help to develop the programmatic concept that eventually was used for the Commercial Orbital Transportation System?
Yes. Bruce Pittman and a NASA colleague, Tom Taylor, gave the first presentation that laid out the milestone-based approach for engaging commercial entities to get payloads and eventually crews to the international space station.

What is your impression of the current commercial space environment?
It looks like it’s literally ready to erupt.

What is the Space Portal working on now?
One of our activities here is to identify promising business candidates for microgravity. We have been studying activities on the international space station with potentially large economic value.