Atomic oxygen, formed in Earth's thermosphere, interacts readily with many materials on spacecraft flying in low Earth orbit (LEO). All hydrocarbon based polymers and graphite are easily oxidized upon the impact of ∼4.5 eV atomic oxygen as the spacecraft ram into the residual atmosphere. The resulting interactions can change the morphology and reduce the thickness of these materials. Directed atomic oxygen erosion will result in the development of textured surfaces on all materials with volatile oxidation products. Examples from space flight samples are provided. As a result of the erosive properties of atomic oxygen on polymers and composites, protective coatings have been developed and are used to increase the functional life of polymer films and composites that are exposed to the LEO environment. The atomic oxygen erosion yields for actual and predicted LEO exposure of numerous materials are presented. Results of in-space exposure of vacuum deposited aluminum protective coatings on polyimide Kapton indicate high rates of degradation are associated with aluminum coatings on both surfaces of the Kapton. Computational modeling predictions indicate that less trapping of the atomic oxygen occurs, with less resulting damage, if only the space-exposed surface is coated with vapor deposited aluminum rather than having both surfaces coated.