Understanding Thermodynamics Allows Scientists to Learn from Columbia Explosion

Thermodynamics is basically the study of the movement of heat. Heat is a measurement of the movement of energy. When designing the Columbia space shuttle back in the 1970s, engineers had to not only design a structure that would be able to hand the incredible amount of g-forces placed upon it during launch and reentry, but also make exactly accurate calculations of the amount of heat that the shell would need to endure. On top of that calculation, engineers would have had to come up with a material with a significantly high enough melting point to meet those needs.

Experiments in thermodynamics helped scientists then (and now) prepare the strong-heat-resistant tiles that comprised the outside of the Columbia. We typically think of heat in terms of something we feel, but because heat is actually a measurement of energy movement, it eliminates most of the guess work required to select the proper shell materials as science has already showed us what compounds are able to retain all of their properties as a solid regardless of the onslaught of huge amounts of energy. The high and low temperature reusable tiles designed for the spacecraft not only were able to resist the energy slammed against them at the molecular level (each molecule in the air of re-entry hits the space shuttle with incredible force -friction- manifested as heat).

The tiles were also able to handle the sudden and dramatic transition from high intensity heat to the sudden frigid stillness of space. Such a difference in temperature would make most materials suddenly break apart as the atoms of which they are made go from rapid movement to essentially having the brakes slammed on them while their molecular structures have been destabilized by the heat (resulting in cracking). Unfortunately, accidental damage to one of the Columbia’s heat protection patches resulted in powerful levels of heat entering the shuttle’s structure and overcoming its structural integrity, meaning a loss of the shuttle and the crew in 2003.