MSE Seminar - Sylvia Johnson, NASA (retired)

History of Thermal Protection Systems

Thermal protection systems (TPS) are used to protect space vehicles from the heat of entry or reentry into an atmosphere after space flight. A vehicle requires propulsion to leave and a thermal protection system to enter or come back. These materials must protect the vehicle from both the convective and radiative heating that occurs during flight through an atmosphere. They must be efficient and reliable, which means they must behave predictably and protect the vehicle and contents as efficiently as possible with the minimum mass and or volume. This talk will trace some of the developments in these materials over the years, with particular emphasis on US space missions which built on earlier and concurrent military technology. The role of the “Space Race” and the political climate of the time will be included. Both reusable and ablative systems will be discussed, and how the use of these materials has changed over time, especially with respect to the Space Shuttle program and recent missions including those to Mars. Some future needs for space exploration will also be discussed.

Biographical Information: From 2000 to 2009 Dr. Sylvia Johnson held the position of Chief of the Thermal Protection Materials and Systems Branch at the NASA Ames Research Center, where she was recognized for contributing to substantial technical and facility improvements. She then became the Chief Materials Technologist, of the Entry Systems and Technology Division before retiring from NASA in late 2016.  Before joining NASA, Dr. Johnson spent 18 years in research at SRI International, (SRI), where she held many positions, including the Director of Ceramic and Chemical Product Development. At SRI, she broadened her experience in materials research and development for a variety of materials and worked with industry, government, domestic and international clients. Dr. Johnson is a recipient of the 2011 James I. Mueller Award from the American Ceramic Society and was inducted into the World Academy of Ceramics in 2014. She presented the Edward Orton Jr. Memorial Lecture for the American Ceramic Society in October 2015 and is featured in the book, Women in Ceramics, (2015) and on the women of NASA website. In addition to many lectures she has given on technical and research topics, Dr. Johnson has published over 50 papers, edited two books, and received seven U.S. patents. Dr. Johnson received a Bachelor of Science (Hons) in Ceramic Engineering from the University of New South Wales (Sydney, Australia), and a Master of Science and a Doctorate in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.  She is President-(2018-19) of the American Ceramic Society and is currently an Honorary Professor of Materials at the University of Birmingham, UK.

Thursday, February 14 at 3:30pm to 4:30pm

Event Type

Meetings, Lectures and Conferences


College of Engineering and Computing, Materials Science and Engineering

CEC Distinguished Speakers

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