Space shuttle tiles: his fibers made them possible

Space shuttle Columbia's thunderous tower and flame would have been far longer and louder without one weight-cutting breakthrough achieved in a Quonset-hut laboratory in Ohio 30 years ago.

Glass-industry researcher Dominick Labino's discovery of a new way to produce microscopic glass fibers led to the ultra-lightweight tiles used to insulate the space shuttle from the searing 2,500 degree F. heat of reentry.

Other heavier materials could withstand the high temperatures but at the steep cost of using more fuel for liftoff or reducing the shuttle's load capacity. As well, the remarkable durability of the tiles results in the shuttle's "RSI" (Reusable Surface Insulation) being scheduled for 100 round trips into space.

Extensive research before the first flight demonstrated the tiles' heat-resistant qualities, their resistance to damage from being plunged from 2, 500 degree heat into water or from workers walking on them, and their dimensional stability despite great, sudden temperature changes.

Working with Minnesota sand and closely guarded trade secrets, employees in a neat red-brick factory overlooking the Maumee River in Waterville, Ohio, today produce all the silica fiber used in the shuttle's protective tiles. A series of mergers absorbed Mr. Labino's original company, and Johns-Manville Glass Fibers Corporation now churns out the fiber under contract to Lockheed. The glass fiber is so fine that one pound of it could cover a three-acre field. Stretched out as a single fiber, a pound of the invisible thread would be 10 million miles long, Labino explains.

To show how glass fibers work, Labino draws a sample of molten glass from one of the four furnaces constantly roaring inside his cluttered laboratory. With quick flourishes, he pulls long dangling arches of glass from the glowing blob. The thinner the thread, the lighter and more flexible it is. He wraps one barely visible wisp of glass around his finger -- and says that his secret process for stretching out fiber for the shuttle's insulation produces a filament 100 times finer at the rate of 3,000 feet a second.

Labino's own stack of clippings on the space shuttle program shows how closely he has watched Columbia's progress from drawing board through to this month's successful flight. He never doubted his silica insulation would perform its task -- as his earlier materials did for Apollo and Gemini missions.

Officially, Labino is retired.But this only means that he pursues his own projects full-time in his private laboratory. His research includes a great deal of work for the glass industry. The latest addition to a thick stack of his government patents is US patent No. 4,259,860 granted April 7, 1981, for his "instrument for measuring the softening temperature of glass."

Along with his important contributions to the space shuttle program and to the glass industry, Dominick Labino is an internationally recognized artist. As a sculptor, he works with glass which he has chemically formulated to meet his own needs. Labino is know for delicate, multicolored glass sculptures that dazzle as they nest in your palm like a robin's egg. As well, the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio, and other museums display massive Labino sculptures formed from thick sheets of glass that seem to hold deep waves of swirling colors.

Labino's lifelong interest in glass led to his breaking the code of ancient Egyptian glassmaking. The need "to get the most insulation for the least amount of weight," he says, resulted in the silica fiber process he discovered in 1950. He's proud enough of that discovery to keep a sample of the first batch he produced. But he'll be prouder still when the industry drops what he considers an unnecessary decision "to keep it as an exotic, high-priced product."

Labino himself has lined some of his glass furnaces with the space-tile insulation, allowing him to melt glass with less electricity than a household toaster uses. But while he waits for big business to make his energy-saving insulation available for everyday use, Labino has no end of other projects to work on.

Whether creating his own sculptures, solving glass problems for other artists , or creating new products and processes for the glass industry, Labino's approach is simple. Whatever the challenge is, he says, "If you work at it, if you go through all the trouble, then you can figure out a solution."

It seems perfectly logical to Labino that one important breakthrough for the space shuttle program came from his tiny laboratory 30 years ago. He expects to continue making new discoveries in his larger but still modest private laboratory which this "retiree" operates without government or industry funding.

Large corporations and massive capital investment, he explains, are essential for creating end products like the space shuttle Columbia. But such projects, Labino says, begin modestly with dedicated and determined individual researchers and artists because "size has not anything to do with innovation and invention."

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