(Prompted by this answer):

Do the designers of large rockets* (have to) take the mass of the exterior paint into account?

If so, do we have examples of actual design changes/decisions based on this (and not on other paint properties like color/heat exchange)?

* Saturn 5, the larger Deltas, Falcons, ...

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    $\begingroup$ I remember looking through the documentation for a Cessna 152 (two seat flight trainer) and marvelling at the fact that, not only did they list the weight and center of gravity for the exterior paint, but they also broke it down into separate numbers for the white base coat and for the color stripe. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 19, 2019 at 16:32
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    $\begingroup$ @SolomonSlow Nothing too surprising about that. Aircraft engine manufacturers usually have a "weights department" with a team of specialist engineers whose sole job is to keep track of mass and CG position, literally down to the last nut, bolt, and washer. This often involves physically weighing parts - the "weight calculations" in CAD software are notoriously inaccurate. $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ Listing the center of gravity of the surface paint in the shape following the aircraft surface separately is genuinely nerdy. [Imagining the dried paint as separate object in weightlessness] $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 0:21
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    $\begingroup$ And while we are at it: if there is more than one color used, the center of gravity changes when the viscosity of a paint is changed, nice... $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 0:34

2 Answers 2


When the shuttle External Tank stopped being painted white, the weight savings was ~600 lbs (~270 kg).

This is not a tremendous amount from a vehicle standpoint, but the tank was carried almost to orbit, so weight shaved off it was a direct addition to payload capability, and that amount could be significant for payloads.

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    $\begingroup$ I never looked at it from that direction: weight saved = extra payload possible given the same design $\endgroup$
    – user10509
    Commented Sep 19, 2019 at 20:51
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    $\begingroup$ @JanDoggen don't know about other vehicles, but shuttle's propellant tanks were always filled to the same point, so on a given mission, a weight savings either meant more weight for payloads or performance margin. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 19, 2019 at 20:53
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    $\begingroup$ Cool, so the crew could stand to gain 38 kg each and still be within mission parameters. $\endgroup$
    – Ingolifs
    Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 1:48
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    $\begingroup$ Why was it painted in the first place then? $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 22, 2019 at 8:22
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    $\begingroup$ I prefer "over a quarter tonne" -- or in American "more than a fourth of a metric ton" $\endgroup$
    – user20636
    Commented Nov 3, 2020 at 17:49

WD-40 was designed to protect the Atlas rocket from rust and corrosion. The skin of the Atlas was so thin, to save weight, that from the moment it was welded together it always had to be pressurized so it wouldn't collapse in on itself. It needed that protectant because it was unpainted, to save weight.


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    $\begingroup$ But why needed tanks made from stainless steel protection against rusting? Was it a low quality stainless steel not immune to rust? $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Commented Sep 19, 2019 at 20:14
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    $\begingroup$ Good question! I had never seen the alloy mentioned. Looking around... Greg Smith tells us that it's 301, which is stronger but less corrosion-resistant than 304. But I don't know what his authority is. Jeff Deem also mentions the corrosiveness of sea air. groups.io/g/cia-rocketry/topic/mercury_atlas_rocket/… $\endgroup$
    – Greg
    Commented Sep 19, 2019 at 20:41
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    $\begingroup$ My 1964 Spacecraft and Boosters book agrees that its' "a special cold-rolled austenitic steel (A1S1 grade 301) (p.219) $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 19, 2019 at 20:50
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    $\begingroup$ No common "stainless" steels can be in a marine environment (such as florida) without cover. For that you need specifically (chloride) corrosion resistant steels. more like 314 and 316 and even those can be argued are not sufficient, you'd need the moly-steels. In any case, paints / "coatings" today not only have weight, they also support the structure, in some cases quite substantially. $\endgroup$
    – Stian
    Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 13:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Uwe stainless definitely can rust happens in rifle barrels all the time, high quality 416r $\endgroup$
    – DatsunZ1
    Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 16:36

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