The end of YouTube video Delta IV Heavy Pad Tour, (with CEO Tory Bruno) - Smarter Every Day 199 points to Destin's second "Smarter" channel's video UP CLOSE Delta IV Heavy Launch Pad Tour (Tory Bruno CEO of ULA) - Smarter Every Day where an extensive discussion of the Delta IV Heavy is given by ULA Pres Tory Bruno.

After about 12:30in the second video, Bruno says (my best efforts at transcription):

(cork is) a very common rocket insulative material because not only is it a thermal insulator, it’s an abaltor which means that it erodes or burns off as it’s trying to heat up which helps to remove the heat before it can conduct in.

[…] And of course where we have our cryogenic propellants… I’ll let you look down here, and you’re going to look for areas that look really rough on the side of the rocket… so that’s an insulative material that we paint or spray on, called SOFI, and that’s a polymer insulator, and it’s very similar. It will be thicker, a couple times thicker than the cork, and that does the same kind of thing, it ablates-off… and that important on these big guys because cryogenic propellants - they’re boiling the whole time…

spray-on foam insulation https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20110014400.pdf and possibly What exactly is the orange insulation foam used on many different launch vehicle stages?

Question: Are the ablative properties of the insulation at all important to reduce the boiloff rate of the cryogenic propellants? Why would rocket bodies use specifically ablative coatings to reduce boil-off of cryogenic propellants?

cued at 12:31, but the whole video is worth watching!

  • $\begingroup$ I would say ask the man himself. At the end of the second video Dustin said that Bruno is on Twitter and Reddit, and "you can ask him super technical questions and he will answer you on the internet." Ask him, and tell us what he says. (To me it sounded like he was talking generally-- it's very commonly used, and the ablation is a reason for that, not necessarily for this particular application. But don't take my word for it.) $\endgroup$
    – Greg
    Apr 4, 2019 at 20:24
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Well, I signed up to Twitter and asked Bruno. I'll let you know. $\endgroup$
    – Greg
    Apr 5, 2019 at 23:57
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    $\begingroup$ I can see two reasons why someone would want ablation: energy that's "used" to vaporize isn't going to conduct into the tank and the additional separation of the hot air to the tank wall due to the ablation gases is somewhat like the Leidenfrost effect. $\endgroup$
    – Christoph
    Apr 18, 2019 at 14:11

2 Answers 2


The ablator is more to protect the structure itself than the propellant quality/boil-off. Ablator was used in certain areas of the shuttle External Tank for this reason.

This quote from "A Technical History of the External Tank" (not online) describes the initial design which didn't include the complete covering of the tank with the classic orange foam.

Thus, the Martin proposal called for small amounts of ablator on the tank where high heating was expected, ablator on the intertank where the shock waves from the Orbiter and Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB) would impinge, ablator on the struts and brackets, ablator on the LH2 aft dome, and foam on the LH2 sidewalls and forward dome.

Also from here

The External Tank uses ablators on areas that are subjected to extreme heat, such as the aft dome near the engine exhaust and on protuberances that are exposed to aerodynamic heating, such as the cable trays

The shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters also used significant amounts of ablator to protect the structure from aeroheating. Clearly boiloff / propellant quality was not a concern here.

(Source: Fundamentals of Launch Vehicle Ablative Thermal Protection System (TPS) Materials) <-- although this powerpoint presentation is typically terse, there is a lot of information in it about ablators on boosters (mostly SRBs).


I asked, and Tory actually answered April 6, but Twitter didn't send notices, I wasn't paying close attention, and I wasn't really sure how it worked. Anyway, I found it today, and I don't think he really answered the specific question, but this is what he said.

Tory Bruno Verified account @torybruno Apr 6

Replying to @GregHan21100390

Any insulation is helpful, but we primarily rely on SOFI insulation to control her boil off. Cork is especially useful as an ablative where severe aero heating is present."

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    $\begingroup$ Are you quoting something public that has a link, or is this a private message? I don't know how twitter works. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 18, 2019 at 0:13
  • $\begingroup$ It's a tweet. Somebody "liked" Tory's reply. I suppose it's public and it could be found on his feed. I would have to explore it myself. $\endgroup$
    – Greg
    Apr 18, 2019 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ I couldn't find it on his twitter for April 6, which is why i've asked. It would be great if you can find the link and add it here. Factual information usually needs a supporting link, and quoting a third person without backing it up in some way is not a good way to answer. Thanks! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 18, 2019 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ I edited the answer and added a link to it. That should take you right there, unless there's some login issue. I didn't change any privacy settings, as far as I know it's public. $\endgroup$
    – Greg
    Apr 18, 2019 at 13:54
  • $\begingroup$ Okay that's great! I've adjusted the format a little bit and linked directly to the answer, feel free to make further adjustments or changes. Thank you so much for all of your efforts to look into this! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 18, 2019 at 13:57

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