In the summer of 2013, 19 firefighters died fighting a wildfire in Yarnell Hill, Arizona, their emergency fire protection shelters unable to withstand the extreme 2,000℉ heat. In the aftermath of the tragedy, two NASA employees wondered if their work on advanced thermal materials could have helped.
This January, NASA reached an agreement with the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service to test prototype fire shelters made from the space agency’s next-generation thermal protection systems (TPM) materials—intended, initially, to protect future spacecraft upon re-entry (in fact, a first generation of the material has already been tested on the agency’s third Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment vehicle, IRVE-3).
Not unlike a spacecraft tearing through the atmosphere, NASA’s hope is that its material will be able to weather a wildfire’s blazing heat—saving lives in the process—unlike any emergency shelter before.
These prototype shelters were tested for the first time in late June, when NASA’s Langley Research Center, University of Alberta adjunct professor :Mark Ackerman, and the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service travelled to Fort Providence in Canada’s Northwest territories to conduct series of controlled outdoor burns.
Though the results thus far are preliminary, “it does appear that there is a potential solution here that would improve the fire protection of these shelters for the next generation,” said Anthony Calomino, NASA lead on flexible TPS development.