Space Shuttle Shrink Wrap

Let’s look at the importance of looking outside your industry for the answer. The importance of “outsiders.”

On January 6, 2000, Columbia launched into space with a seemingly uneventful launch, but as we would all learn later, the foam off the external tank, the insulation around the outside of the tank, pieces of it had fallen of and struck the left side of the orbiter wing.

This damaged the wing and nobody really knew about, but upon re-entry back into the atmosphere, that damage to the wing allowed the wing to heat up and fail. Later on, we’d all see the heart crushing videos of the vehicle tearing apart. This was obviously a horrible disaster—the loss of the vehicle and crew was devastating.
OK, let’s switch gears for a second. Do you remember the Tylenol incident in the early 1980s?

“The Cook County Medical Examiner’s office here in Chicago has definitely confirmed the presence of Cyanide in two separate bottles of Extra-Strength Tylenol, Tylenol Capsules, 50 capsules in each bottle, 500 mg. doses.

These have been associated with one death in Elk Grove Village and two deaths and the serious illness of a fourth in Arlington Heights. Three victims are related, and onset of symptoms occurred in their family home, but these are two different locations—two distinct locations.”

I’m sure you’re sitting there thinking, “What in the world does this Tylenol incident that happened twenty-plus years ago have anything to do with the Space Program?” Well, hold on a second, because I think I can make a connection.

In my Creative Thinking workshops, before we start any brainstorming session, we always go through in detail the brainstorming rules and one of the rules that is critical is to make sure that out of your team, approximately a third of the members are outsiders. People outside your department, outside your company, or better yet, completely outside your industry.

Looking at this foam problem, I thought to myself, “What outsiders could NASA bring in to help solve the issue?” That’s what mentally took me back to that Tylenol incident. Do you know how many billions and billions have been spent on packaging materials and packaging processes since then? I mean, it’s unbelievable the advancements and improvements that they’ve come up with. So I thought about why couldn’t NASA bring in some packaging engineers and shrink-wrap the external tank.

Yeah, shrink-wrap. I mean, why not?

We shrink wrap small bales of hay all the time, even those gigantic two thousand pounders. And everybody’s seen a boat fresh out of the factory going down the highway that’s been shrink-wrapped – there’s nothing coming loose from that baby.
I even suggested this to some NASA folks in a lecture I gave to them in June of 2005.

“By me bringing this up, I’m either a very brave man or very stupid to be bringing this up in front of two hundred NASA people, OK? But I wanted to throw that out to try and open your mind a little bit. I kept saying, “Why don’t you shrink wrap the External Tank? Why don’t we shrink-wrap it? Everyone in this room knows that you cannot open a music CD, right?”

Not just music CDs, but think about aspirin bottles, medication – all the packaging that you see in stores. Think about how much that material and process has improved over the last twenty years.

After my lecture, there was a celebration for a brand new facility they had just completed, and we were standing around talking, and I asked a few people, “What do you think about my shrink wrap idea?” And they said, “Well, you know, it’s not gonna work because ice will probably stick to the plastic.” I said, “Well, I’m sure we could develop a polymer where ice won’t stick to it?” And another guy said, “Well, we don’t have the ground support equipment to process it like that.” And I was like, “Well surely you can design and build it.”

“Well, actually that’s not what I had in mind anyway. I was thinking about a polymer that you would spray on it, kind of like painting the external tank, and it would room temperature cure and shrink on its own.”

So this conversation went on for a while and, you know, we’re sitting there eating our hors d’oeuvres, the little meatballs on the toothpicks, and the two guys started looking over my shoulder trying to figure out, “How do we get away from this nutcase?” You know, and as they started to backpedal to get away from me, I said, “Well, you know, you never used to have a foam problem back when you used to shrink wrap the tank.”

They said, “What? What are you talking about?”
I said, “Well, you used to shrink wrap the external tank.” They said, “No we didn’t.” I said, “Yes you did,” and they just looked at me with that glazed look and I said….

“It was called white paint.”

Remember that? Remember back when the external tank was painted white? So I said to these guys, “You know, back when you used to paint it, you never had a foam problem.”

They said, “Are you serious?”

I said, “Well, actually I don’t know if that’s true or not, but you know what? Neither do you, because back then there weren’t enough cameras and detail to see if any foam fell off or not, so the paint itself may have actually solved the problem.”

Again, I was just trying to get them to think differently. And I’m sure you could come up and develop a polymer that you could spray on that would act as a shrink-wrap.

So who are your outsiders in your business? If you don’t have any, you really need to go get some.

Leave a Reply