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Brainstorm

The first step to knowledge—to finding the answer—is to eliminate what isn't true. Thomas Edison, during his struggle to create the incandescent light bulb, performed thousands of unsuccessful trials. When reporters asked him what he thought about his lack of progress, he replied: "I haven't failed. I've just found ten thousand ways that won't work!"

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave us many lessons about thinking through his brilliant fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, who explains his methods to his sidekick, Dr. Watson. On one occasion, Holmes tells Dr. Watson, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." By the way, this is not a bad strategy when taking multiple-choice tests (such as the SATs, GREs, and IQtests) where you may not be sure of the right answer but can appear a lot smarter by eliminating the answers you know are wrong.

We get another glimpse into the mind of genius when, early on in an investigation, Dr. Watson asks Holmes to reveal his current hunch about a crime. "I have devised seven separate explanations, each of which would cover the facts as far as we know them. But which of these is correct can only be determined by . . . fresh information. . . ."

We see the fundamental concepts of trial and error, of hypothetical solution generation and elimination, of brainstorming, and of judging. We will discuss judging later. For now we will concentrate on the process of entertaining many different solutions simultaneously.

Brainstorming consists of making a long list of possibilities. The goal is to create as many ideas (the good, the bad, and the ugly) as you can, to make your list as long as possible. (Here's a situation where length really does matter.)

No idea, no matter how absurd, stupid, ridiculous, or silly, should be discarded. Absolutely no judgment should be made at this stage. Turn your judging mind (your logic center) off. Make it a kitchen-sink argument: throw everything at your problem (but the kitchen sink). You can do this exercise alone or with a group, but it's more fun with a group. Too many cooks will not spoil the broth.

Give your creativity (and everyone else's) free rein. (And remember—BS, which could also stand for brainstorming, works!) Don't take the process too seriously. Don't be afraid to play with ideas. The time to criticize will come later. You may be searching for a needle in a haystack, but you first must build the haystack.

To land a man on the moon within the decade, as President Kennedy directed, rocket scientists had a preconceived idea. We would build a rocket that would launch from the surface of Earth and would land all three men directly on the surface of the moon. After planting their flag, leaving their footprints in the dust, and collecting rock samples, the three men would blast off from the lunar surface and return directly to Earth.

But that is not how it was accomplished.

Original calculations demonstrated that a super rocket, dubbed the Nova, would have to be constructed. It would be 500 feet tall (as tall as a 50-story building) and would weigh 12 million pounds. It seemed impossible to everyone but Wernher von Braun who dreamt of this super rocket.

But then a NASA Langley engineer, Dr. John C. Houbolt (which rhymes with cobalt) proposed a different approach: lunar orbital rendezvous. Instead of landing all three men on the moon along with the return rocket, Houbolt suggested parking the return vehicle in orbit around the moon, piloted by one of the astronauts. A much smaller vehicle, the lunar module, would take two astronauts down to the lunar surface and later back up to the lunar

Chapter 5 Brainstorm parking orbit. The lunar module would be incapable of returning to Earth on its own power. It would have to rendezvous with the mother ship (the command service module), which had the propel-lant to send the three astronauts home.

When the concept of lunar rendezvous was suggested, it was considered crazy and dangerous. At first, NASA's famous spacecraft designer, Max Faget, was a bitter opponent and told Houbolt, "Your figures lie!" If the men were unable to catch up with the mother ship, they would die in lunar orbit. Only the astronaut in the command module could return alive.

The idea was the result of brainstorming—thinking outside the box. And it changed everything. Rocket scientists would have to develop a technique to join two spacecraft in space. The concept was tested during the Gemini program in the relative safety of Earth orbit. After some harrowing, nearly fatal missions, rendezvous and docking in space was successfully demonstrated.

Lunar rendezvous eliminated the need to build the rocket of von Braun's dreams (the Nova) and allowed men to reach the moon with the much smaller Saturn V rocket. The Saturn V was still gigantic at 365 feet tall (36 stories) and weighing 7 million pounds. This little brother of the Nova got America to the moon in only eight years, easily fulfilling President Kennedy's challenge. But without the brainchild of John Houbolt, it would never have happened. Moments after Mission Control confirmed that Armstrong and Aldrin had safely landed on the moon, Werner von Braun turned to Houbolt and said, "John, it worked beautifully."

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