Thursday, July 30, 2009

You Don't Have to Be a Rocket Scientist

During our summer family vacation to the Grand Canyon last month, we took the opportunity to see Meteor Crater about 35 miles (56 kilometers) east of Flagstaff, Arizona. Both my children like dinosaurs, space and nature, so it was on their list to explore during our vacation.

Meteor Crater is the first proven crater site in the world. The crater is an impressive size of about 4,000 feet (1.2 kilometers) in diameter and 550 feet (168 meters) deep. It is estimated to have been created when an iron meteorite about the size of a school bus hit the Arizona desert about 49,000 years ago.

With a highly unique surface of rock and moon-like terrain, it is considered one of the prime locations for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to conduct lunar testing. Since the mid 1960s, NASA regularly visits Meteor Crater to test rovers, spacesuits, communication systems and other equipment for space missions.

One of the stories that our guide told us as we hiked along the crater rim was about the first testing conducted by NASA in 1968 at Meteor Crater. According to our guide, the most important geology lesson taught to our astronauts was that in the formation of the crater, the impact shoots the core rocks to the surface. That means to take core samples; you don’t need to drill and should focus on collecting the rocks on the surface rim. That piece of valuable information certainly changes the action plan on collecting moon rocks.

The other interesting story was about the space equipment testing, in particular the spacesuit. Since no human has ever stepped foot on the lunar surface up that time, our NASA scientists had plenty of things to consider in designing and testing the spacesuit. Things like pressure, temperature, oxygen deliver systems, and even mobility to bend down to pick up moon rocks. Of course, safety of our astronauts is the prime concern and failure is not an option.

As the story goes, while moving about the Meteor Crater in the testing of the spacesuits for our first moon landing, one of the astronauts falls down and tears his spacesuit on the rocks. As you can imagine, a tear is considered a catastrophic failure and most likely caused the NASA team to jump into rapid problem solving mode. As a result, successful modifications were made to the spacesuit before sending astronauts to the moon.

I have not been able to confirm all the facts of this spacesuit tear story so I will speculate here. I will assume our NASA scientists most likely had developed some form of FMEA (Failure Mode and Effect Analysis) to list all the potential failure modes of the spacesuit and planned countermeasures. These countermeasures would have been considered in developing the spacesuit design specifications.

Even with an excellent FMEA competed by rocket scientists at NASA, a tear in the spacesuit occurred due to a simple fall over the rocky surface.

I consider this an important lesson in the value of going to gemba. Even if we can’t actual go to gemba, in this case, the moon, we should simulate the gemba conditions the best we can to see what happens. And most importantly, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure it all out. Even rocket scientists can’t think of everything and need to see by testing things out first to get the facts. To see and understand, go to gemba.
(Photos by NASA)

No comments: