I’m always happy to learn that NASA is conducting new technology demonstrations – and the recent success of an inflatable heat shield is no exception!
Congress has determined that NASA should follow the 1960s vision of space travel: you launch in a vehicle, you travel through space in that same vehicle, and you land in that vehicle. Sounds all nice and cozy, except that the last five minutes of your trip require a heat shield, which is massive – eating into the amount of food supplies, scientific instruments, and astronauts you can launch in the first place. Until the moment of re-entry, the heat shield is just dead weight, doing nothing and eating into the mission planners’ mass budgets. This whole architectural problem is one of the big reasons why I favor assembling interplanetary exploration vehicles in space and then taxiing up and down to those vehicles with capsules, instead of trying to take capsules to the Moon, asteroids, or Mars.
How about if your heat shield didn’t have such a huge mass? And how about if your spacecraft could stow it neatly away, so that its size and shape wasn’t a design driver of the launch vehicle or capsule shape? Some of those problems wouldn’t be so bad.
This is a big step towards opening up more flexibility for mission architects. I hope the technology finds its way onto some real missions in the near future!