Space Shuttle Challenger

You know, creativity at times doesn’t require a whole lot more than just some plain common sense. A lot of times, the answer is so big, so huge, it’s like an elephant in the room and nobody else can see it. Now, this story I’m about to tell is going to be controversial and I’m sure I’ll get some flak over it. Let’s go ahead and tell the story anyway.

2006 was the twentieth anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. If you’re old enough to remember this investigation, you’ll recall that the launch failed because of the solid rocket boost O-rings.

It was reported that the O-rings failed because it was so cold outside. But was it really the weather that caused the accident?
At the time of launch, it was thirty-six degrees Fahrenheit outside. Here’s a reported fact that, at least in my opinion, was grossly overlooked.

The surface – the outside surface of the solid rocket boosters, were measured at twelve degrees Fahrenheit, not thirty six. Now how in the world can the solid rocket boosters be twelve degrees when it’s thirty-six degrees outside?

Now most people ignored this fact, I’m assuming because of wind chill. Now, wind chill is only a phenomena that people and living things can experience. It’s a sensation we get when, say, cold air blows across our skin. It removes some of the heat near the skin and makes it feel colder. But for something that’s not alive, like the Space Shuttle, it can’t feel, so there’s no such thing as wind chill.
Now bear with me for a moment as I explain some basic thermodynamics if you’re not familiar with it, and I promise it won’t be painful, so hang with me.

OK, so you have this solid rocket booster at twelve degrees Fahrenheit and a wind blowing past it at thirty-six degrees. Now, thirty-six may sound cold to you and me, but it’s warm, obviously, compared to twelve degrees.

This thirty-six degree wind, blowing past a solid rocket booster, should have heated it to thirty-six degrees as well, but it didn’t. The booster was at twelve degrees. Well, it can’t be twelve degrees unless something was keeping it cold. It would keep something really, really cold to keep it at twelve degrees with all that warm air blowing past it.

OK, forget the Space Shuttle thermodynamics for a minute and let’s look at a much simpler example we can all understand.

OK, here we are back in Cape Canaveral, Florida on the beach. It’s about eighty degrees out today, and about as windy as it was on the Space Shuttle Challenger launch. So here’s an example, though: what if we took a frosty cold beer, Coors Light, out of a cooler that’s chilled to perfection, say, thirty-five degrees, and we stuck it in the dirt? What do you think’s gonna happen?

Well, now, you know what’s gonna happen—the beer’s gonna get warm. You’ve got this eighty-degree air out here blowing past it, and it’s transferring the heat from the air to the beer. It’s a process that we call convection. Not to mention the sunshine—or solar radiation—that’s heating it as well.

So you know that there’s no way this beer is gonna stay cold unless something else is keeping it cold. 

Now the only thing I know of on the Space Shuttle, or even near it, that’s cold enough to keep those boosters at twelve degrees when a hot thirty-six degree wind is blowing past it is the liquid hydrogen and the liquid oxygen in the external tank.

Now, twenty years ago, the external tank on the Space Shuttle had a periodic history of leaking. It would crack during fueling, and the liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen, would actually leak out of it. I can’t think of anything else that would cause the boosters to be that cold.
Look at the Presidential Report on the Space Shuttle Challenger accident.

There’s no mention in there of the external tank leaking, even though there is a history of it, and what’s even more amazing is there’s no mention whatsoever about how the boosters could possibly be twelve degrees when it’s a balmy thirty-six degrees outside. And it’s not like there weren’t a lot of smart people looking at this—Neil Armstrong, Richard Feynman, Sally Ride, Chuck Yeager. How do all of these people miss this gigantic elephant in the room?

OK, I want you to step back and look at your business. Look at some of the biggest opportunities, issues, and problems that you have. Are you sure you don’t have an elephant in the room? Is there some obvious thing that everyone’s missing?

As I said at the beginning of this, sometimes creative thinking just takes some common sense.

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