Re-entry technology demonstrators


Re-entry Technology Demonstrators

Several missions have been flown with the goal of validating re-entry simulations and flight testing thermal protection systems. These are listed on this page. 


RVX-1

Operator: USAF

Mission: Re-Entry technology demonstrator for ablative materials 

Flight: 1959

Status: Completed

Testing for: -


During the ‘50s in the United States, ablative materials were identified to offer great potential for thermal protection systems of reentry vehicles. After the success of the Mark-2 reentry vehicle, which featured a simpler and heavier heat sink thermal protection system, it was time for more ablative materials to be put to the test. The RVX-1 program had the purpose of maturing and validating the ablative protection technologies, as well as the evaluation of a newly developed guidance system to more accurately determine the vehicle’s impact point [181].


General Electric was responsible for the RVX-1 vehicle design, however, two versions existed with each their own thermal protection system: one version from General Electric and the other from Avco. Both vehicles were cylindrical in shape with a blunt spherical nosecone and a flared rear section. The former was 1.70 meters long, 0.51 meters in diameter and weighed 293 kg, while the Avco version was 1.72 meters long and 0.71 meters in diameter. On the General Electric vehicle, three phenolic nylon materials were applied to the cylindrical and flared section. These three ablators were used alternatingly along the perimeter of the vehicle in intervals of 60°, to assess the performance of all three during the same flight. The nosecone itself was covered in a phenolic resin, embedded with small pieces of nylon cloth. The Avco variant of RVX-1 used phenolic refrasil on the cylindrical and flared section, while the nose cone was protected using a quartz-based ablative, called Avcoite [181][182].

There was an onboard recovery system to allow the scientists and engineers to evaluate the materials’ performances after the flight. This included a parachute, of which little information is known, as well as a floatation device, based on that of the Mark-2 reentry vehicle [181].


From January to June 1959, a total of six vehicles were flown, three of both versions, all onboard modified Thor rockets. The first flight occurred on January 23, 1959, although the first successful recovery happened on April 5th, 1959. Although there were only two fully successful and three partially successful flights, both Avco and General Electric proved that their ablative materials could withstand the 6600°C hot environments encountered during reentry. [181]

The RVX-1 vehicles were instrumental in the development of ablative thermal protection systems as these test flights allowed scientists and engineers to analyse the vehicle after the flight. The success of these flights set the stage for a continued research effort towards ablative thermal protection systems through the RVX-2 and the Mark-3 reentry vehicle, and eventually contributed towards the successful use of similar ablative thermal protection materials on manned vehicles such as Apollo and Orion.


RVX-1 before flight
RVX-1 after launch

RVX-1 before and after launch

RVX-2

Operator: USAF

Mission: Re-Entry technology demonstrator for ablative materials 

Flight: March 1959 – October 1960

Status: Completed

Testing for: -


The RVX-1 reentry vehicles matured the technologies for ablative reentry on sub-orbital trajectories, however, their flight conditions were not yet fully representative to that of an operational ballistic reentry vehicle due to the limited capabilities of the Thor-Able rocket. After the development of the more capable Atlas rocket, it was time to put the state-of-the-art thermal protection systems of General Electric to the test in the RVX-2 program. [206]


The RVX-2 vehicle had a conical shape with a spherical nose tip and was at the time the largest reentry vehicle flown. It measured 3.73 meters long, had a diameter of 1.63 meters, and weighed 907 kg. The nose tip was covered with chopped nylon-reinforced phenolic resin, while the vehicle’s frustum was protected by an experimental unreinforced phenolic resin. [1][2]

Three RVX-2 vehicles were launched between March 1959 and July 1959, of which the first two experienced a guidance failure. The third flight was however a great success, where the large reentry vehicle was successfully recovered, as can be seen in the figure below. This successful flight test proved the technology readiness of the ablative materials for high-speed reentry, which was used for the development of the Mark 5 reentry vehicle. [206][207]

Between August 1960 and October 1960, there were another three reentry vehicle flights onboard Atlas rockets, as part of the RVX-2A program. These reentry vehicles were identical in shape to those of RVX-2, however had significantly more experiments onboard to gather scientific data, making the capsule approximately 1225 kg heavy. They featured for example live mice, experimental fuel cells, transpiration cooling, photography equipment, etc … One of these flights tested ablative thermal protection materials of Avco for the Minuteman reentry vehicle. [206]

RVX-2 reentry vehicle after successful recovery from launch onboard an Atlas on July 21, 1959

RVX-2 reentry vehicle after successful recovery from launch onboard an Atlas on July 21, 1959

Mark-3

Operator: USAF

Mission: Re-Entry technology demonstrator for ablative materials 

Flight: March 1960 - January 1961

Status: Completed

Testing for: -


After the success of the RVX technology demonstrators at the end of the ‘50s, it was time for the USA’s next iteration reentry vehicle: the Mark 3. Its design and geometry were heavily based on that of the RVX-1, featuring a spherical-conical nose cone, cylindrical mid-body, and a large flare at the back to provide aerodynamic stability. The whole vehicle was covered in phenolic nylon to protect itself from the extreme temperatures encountered during reentry. Several versions of the Mark 3 were built, with a slightly different geometry, primarily at the flare. Versions such as the Mark 3 Mod I, Mod IX, and Mod 1A featured a single bi-conic flare, while the Mark 3 Mod IB and Mod IIB featured a uniquely looking double flare. These vehicles were approximately 3 meters long and 0.9 to 1 meter in diameter. Between March 1960 and January 1961, a total of 11 test flights occurred onboard Atlas D, of which 1 was unsuccessful due to a launcher failure before lift-off. The success of the Mark 3 reentry vehicle made it enter service from 1960 to 1965. [208]


Mark-4

Operator: USAF

Mission: Re-Entry technology demonstrator for ablative materials 

Flight: March 1960 - January 1961

Status: Completed

Testing for: -


During the late ‘50s, the development of ablative thermal protection materials for reentry vehicles made significant progress in the USA. Companies such as Avco and General Electric tested several materials for their thermal performance during multiple flight test programs such as Polaris and previous RVX flights. After this experimental phase, a new generation of operational reentry vehicles was developed such as the Mark 4 reentry vehicle. [208]


The Mark 4 vehicle design was primarily based on the experience gained from the RVX-1 (also known as Thor-Able-II) program. It was cylindrical in shape with a biconical flared section at the rear and a blunt spherical-conical nose. The cylindrical section of the vehicle measured 0.84 meters in diameter, while at its widest point, the flare was 1.22 meters wide. The earlier-developed Refrasil and Avcoite ablative materials were used on the nose and sides of the vehicle respectively. With a length of 3.22 meters, the Mark-4 was a one of the heaviest and largest reentry vehicles of its time.  [208]

Prior to operational deployment, two sub-scale flight test programs were performed, called RVX-3 and RVX-4. The former featured 72% scale versions of the Mark 4 reentry vehicle, while the latter flew reentry vehicles at 94% scale. A total of five RVX-3 reentry vehicles were flown onboard Titan-I rockets between December 1959 and April 1960, while the RVX-4 vehicles were flown once on an Atlas and seven times on a Titan-I rocket. [208]

After the successful demonstration of the sub-scale vehicles, the full-scale Mark 4 reentry vehicle was tested 15 times on Atlas rockets, 28 times on Titan-I, and finally once on a Titan-II between 1960 and 1963. [208]


Full-scal Mark 4 reentry vehicle (right) inside a facility from Avco

Full-scal Mark 4 reentry vehicle (right) inside a facility from Avco

Mark-5

Operator: USAF

Mission: Re-Entry technology demonstrator for ablative materials 

Flight: August 1960 - Juli 1963

Status: Completed

At the end of the 1950s, the USA was in need of a lightweight, advanced reentry vehicle for their Minuteman and Nike-Zeus rocket launchers. Initially, two different vehicles were to be developed by Avco. However, due to financial constraints and technical difficulties, only one of the two designs made it off the drawing board. The Mark-5 reentry vehicle was significantly smaller than the other reentry vehicles that were being developed at the time, such as the Mark 3 and Mark 4. It featured a similar geometry: a conical nose cone with a spherical tip, a cylindrical midsection, and a flared afterbody to provide aerodynamic stability. The tip was made from an improved Avcoite material, while the rest of the body was covered in phenolic refrain. The back shell however was protected by a layer of Avcoat.

The Mark-5 reentry vehicle did not have any active attitude control mechanism for stabilization. Instead, it tumbled after separation until the point where it hit the atmosphere, where a set of small fins induced a spin to the vehicle. These fins were designed to burn up during reentry and were similar to those used onboard the Mark-4 reentry vehicle. 

After ground testing, multiple in-flight test series were conducted in the early ‘60s. Three tests were conducted onboard Minuteman-IA rockets from a Cape Canaveral launch pad between February and June 1961. Simultaneously, 21 silo-launched flight tests were conducted from Cape Canaveral between August 1960 and February 1963, of which 15 were successful. Apart from the flight tests onboard Minuteman rockets, there were also flight tests on the Atlas from May 1961 to July 1963. After the development and testing phase, the Mark 5 entered service on 150 minutemen from 1962 until 1963. [206]

Mark-5 Reentry Vehicles after flight (left) and before flight (right).

Mark-5 Reentry Vehicles after flight (left) and before flight (right).

Mark-6

Operator: USAF

Mission: Operational ballistic reentry vehicle

Flight: 1962 - 1987

Status: Completed


With its diameter of 2.3 meters and length of over 3 meters, the Mark 6 Reentry vehicle was one of the largest reentry vehicles developed by the USA. General Electric built upon the knowledge gained during the various reentry vehicle test programs of the ‘50s. Especially the RVX-2 vehicles, which served as a precursor to evaluating the shape and newly developed materials for the Mark 6. In contrast to the more cylindrical body shapes of previous reentry vehicles, RVX-1 and the Mark 6 featured a fully conical body shape with a spherical nose cap. Its tip was made from 60 mm thick phenolic nylon, while the conical body was covered in a layer of a newly developed plastic material. By 1962, the Titan-II rocket entered operational service together with the Mark 6 Reentry vehicle up to 1987. [206][208]

Mark 6 Reentry Vehicle on display at the National Museum of the US Air Force

Mark 6 Reentry Vehicle on display at the National Museum of the US Air Force