Getting Pumped Up for Launch: NASA Inflatable Decelerator Prepared for Flight Test

Successful completion of final test of the LOFTID inflation system means it’s ready for integration with the rest of the re-entry vehicle. (Credits: NASA)

HAMPTON, Va. (NASA PR) — No, we’re not pumping up inner tubes for a pool party, but the successful inflation of this stack of test rings marks the final test of the inflation system for NASA’s LOFTID demonstration which will make a splash when it lands in the Pacific Ocean after launch. 

A NASA technology that could one day help land humans on Mars, the Bernard Kutter Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID), is scheduled to launch with a polar-orbiting satellite no earlier than fall 2022. After the satellite makes its way to orbit, LOFTID will descend back to Earth from low-Earth orbit to demonstrate that the inflatable aeroshell, or heat shield, can slow down and survive re-entry.

The inflation system is one component of the LOFTID re-entry vehicle, and it is designed to slowly expand the aeroshell to its final shape before it reenters Earth’s atmosphere. The testing was performed using an inflatable volume tori simulator, or a series of rings that use the same amount of air as the flight aeroshell. Each inflation test was run as the system would operate in flight. This procedure ensures the inflation system responds as intended during routine operations and during potential anomalies.

This inflation marks the final test in a series of inflation system check out tests. Now the system is ready for integration into the forward segment of the re-entry vehicle, which includes several segments that link the aeroshell to the inflation system, flight electronics, ejectable data recorder, and parachute system. Later this year, all the components of the re-entry vehicle will be integrated and put through a battery of environmental tests in preparation for delivery to industry partner United Launch Alliance, which is providing the launch and recovery.

The LOFTID project is a part of the Technology Demonstration Missions program within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. The project is managed by NASA’s Langley Research Center with contributions from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California.