RETURNING SAFELY TO EARTH THE AEROASSIST FLIGHT EXPERIMENT MODEL.
PROPOSED VEHICLE COULD PERHAPS BE USED BY FUTURE MARS ASTRONAUTS.
Large two part high-fidelity prototype model of the Aeroassist Flight Experiment (AFE) vehicle made of metal, painted wood, and plastic. The free-flying component has an 8 x 8 x 2 ½ inch diameter blunted elliptical cone with gray and white markings to represent Thermal Protection System (TPS) tiles. A hexagon shaped propulsion unit 6 x 6 x 3 ½ inches in size rests inside the cone with a silver and black solid fuel rocket motor at the center. This unit has four multi-nozzle attitude control thrusters and a Space Shuttle "robot arm" grapple pin fixture. The second part is a Space Shuttle "U-shaped" payload bay pallet 9 x 12 x 5 inches with a metal berthing platform rising 2 inches off the pallet base and is 5 inches square. The solid rocket motor fits within a circular opening on the platform. The pallet has two sets of orbiter attach fittings that are used to secure the pallet inside the payload bay.
Both model components fit inside a foam-lined dark blue custom carrying case 16 x 10 x 8 inches in size. A metal tag on the case reads: "National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama. Graphics and Models Branch. Aeroassist Flight Experiment (AFE). Scale 1:20." With diagrams of the proposed flight paths for the vehicle.
Plans for the AFE originated in the 1980s as a Space Shuttle launched and released free flying vehicle to test deceleration techniques of high earth orbiting vehicles. One flight scenario would have the solid rocket motor accelerate AFE into a high speed entry through the earth's atmosphere. The vehicle would begin to slow moving through the atmosphere with the lowest altitude being around 250,000 feet above the earth. The Thermal Protection System (TPS), the same as used on the Space Shuttle, would prevent heating damage.
AFE's trajectory would allow retrieval via the Space Shuttle's robotic arm using the grapple pin fixture.
This experiment was to prove that future space transport vehicles could safely return from geostationary orbit some 22,200 miles above earth with extended applications for vehicles returning from the Moon and perhaps even Mars. Various issues including funding problems forced the cancellation of this flight projects in the late 1990s. Models for this type of mission are thus exceeding rare.