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Question:
My Physics class just received a tile from a recently demolished space shuttle. These tiles are black on one side and have a white, fairly "squishy" part on the other side. The manual that came with these tiles states that after handling, the handler should wash his/her hands. Can anyone tell me what this substance does, how it helps the spa spaceship, and why it is considered toxic? P.S. The white stuff is heat resistant.



Replies:
They are "demolishing" space shuttles??? The white stuff is probably some kind of paint (if it was on the outside) or glue (if it was on the inside). I seem to recall that the hardest problem with those tiles (for which the black stuff, graphite I believe, was supposed to be the main heat-resistant material) was getting them to stick on to the rest of the shuttle. Maybe somebody else knows more though?

Arthur Smith


update July, 2001

As indicated in the answer, the original writer was probably referring to the adhesive. Interestingly, the adhesive used to attach the tiles is esentially ordinary silicone RTV. It is basically the same stuff that can buy in the hardware store to use as aquarium sealer, or to caulk the edge of a bathtub or shower stall, to a nearby tile wall.

Silicone RTV will withstand an extremely wide temerature range while still maintaining its rubbery consistency. Thus, it is ideal for attaching these tiles since it will not crack under reentry buffeting etc. It is a single-part resin that hardens by a condensation reaction, absorbing atmospheric moisture and liberating acetic acid (or a higher alcohol, depending on the exact type of RTV resin in question) in the process.

The tiles themselves are a highly expanded form of silica (SiO2) and themselves are absolutely rigid (definitely "un-squishy!). Funny that such a garden variety adhesive is used for such a high-tech application!

Bob Wilson



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