Friday, July 11, 2014

space travel's in my blood, and there ain't nothing I can do about it

We've just finished reading 'Think Like A Freak', the third book by Levitt and Dubner the others being Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics. You may also know their weekly WNYC radio show/podcast.

Their ouvre is at the lighter pop end of the behavioural economics canon, however they can take some of the biggest credit for opening up this thinking to a mass audience.

Either way it's an entertaining read, I got through in about two round trips to Hobart.

There's one little story towards the end concerning the January 1986 Nasa Space Shuttle mission which I suspect that many of you - my planning brothers and sisters - will identify with.

The following is almost as it appears in the book, I've paraphrased/shortened it a bit...

The launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger had already been delayed several times, both nasa themselves and the engineers were getting twitchy.

However on January 28, 1986, it looked like Nasa could finally launch from Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

This particular mission had drawn lot of interest from the public, mainly because the crew was to include a civilian, a schoolteacher called Christa McAuliffe.

However some unusually cold overnight temperatures in the nights before the launch led the chief engineer Allen McDonald to recommended to his Nasa client that they postpone once more.

McDonald and his team of engineers explained that the cold weather might damage the rubber O-rings that kept hot gases from escaping the shuttle boosters, indeed, the boosters had never even been tested at temperatures as low as forecast.

Nasa pushed back, they wanted a launch.

Years later Mcdonald wrote about this.

"This was the first time that Nasa personnel ever challenged a recommendation that was made that said it was unsafe to fly.

For some strange reason we found ourselves being challenged to prove quantitatively that it would definitely fail, and we couldn't do that."

So the advice of the engineers was ignored and the launch was officially back on.

McDonald - and his team of experts - had been overruled.

In fact when Nasa came and asked McDonald to sign off on the decision to launch he refused.

His boss signed it off instead.

So the next morning, Space Shuttle Challenger took off as scheduled.

73 seconds later Challenger blew up in mid-air, killing everyone on board.

A subsequent enquiry found that explosion was caused by a failure of O-rings due to the cold weather.


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