One of the tragedies of the early space program was a fire that occurred in an Apollo module causing the deaths of three astronauts. On investigation of the fire, it was found that some of the materials utilized in the spacecraft, such as polyurethane foam in seats, were highly flammable. NASA initiated an extensive research program to develop new flame resistant materials and/or ways to reduce the flammability of existing materials.
Research on the flammability of polymers indicated that many of these materials could be protected from direct ignition by the use of a coating of fire-resistant material. NASA Ames Research Center developed a novel encapsulation technology. As an application for this new technology, an advanced aircraft passenger and crew seat was developed. The seat consisted of conventional urethane foam enveloped in a fire-blocking layer of fabric. A typical seat of this composition passes a seat burn test with only a modest weight loss and no flame spread across the entire seat. This provides a considerable safety margin for exit as well as helping retard the emission of smoke and toxic gases. A non-treated seat in the same test is totally consumed in less than two minutes. In 1984 when the FAA issued a new regulation regarding the flammability of seat cushions, more than 600,000 seats were retrofitted with the fire-blocking system.
That rule increased chances of survival in aircraft accidents involving fire and smoke. It is estimated that use of this technology saves 20 to 25 lives each year with all the major domestic airlines, as well as a large number of international carriers, now using this technology.