Problems Starting Space Shuttle Engines
Prior to the first flight of the Space Shuttle we were test firing the Main Propulsion System Engines at the test site in Mississippi when we experienced a VERY LARGE explosion at the time we attempted to start the engines. Had this explosion occurred on an actual Space Shuttle during launch, it would have destroyed the Shuttle and probably killed the crew.
NASA grounded the Shuttle fleet! I was assigned the responsibility of working with the engine supplier to assure that the problem was corrected before we could fly the first Space Shuttle flight.
I had several meetings with the supplier and we determined that the problem was caused by the way the engines were started. During start, cold hydrogen fuel at -423 degrees was released thru the engine nozzles before it was ignited with a spark plug type device. The problem was that hydrogen is lighter than air, therefore it floated up and formed a cloud of very explosive hydrogen outside of the engines. When the engines were ignited, the cloud exploded very violently. The engine supplier said to correct the problem would require changes to the start sequence and very extensive testing to certify that it was safe. Total cost to NASA was going to be a little over \$9 million!
Shortly after this I was doing fireworks with my son Jason on a 4th of July when I got this brilliant idea. I needed a device to shoot sparks which would burn the hydrogen at the exit of the engine nozzle during start. This would keep the hydrogen from forming a large cloud and therefore prevent the explosion from occurring.
Next day I went to work and called Disneyland to find out the name of their pyrotechnic supplier for their nightly shows. I called the company and explained to them that I needed a device that would shoot sparks about 30 feet at a temperature of 1200 degrees. They told me...no problem, they made that kind of sparkler for the movie industry all the time. The salesman told me that they sold for \$9.85 each!
I later attended a meeting with NASA in which the engine supplier said they could resolve the explosion problem for \$9 million. Needless to say, NASA was overjoyed when I got up and presented my proposal to fix their problem with a few \$9.85 sparklers. My proposed fix, known as the Main Engine Hydrogen Burn-off System, was implemented and has been utilized on every Space Shuttle launch without a single problem. I should mention however, NASA would not certify my supplier to produce the \$9.85 sparklers and the new supplier selected provides the same basic item for about \$1200 each...... but they can meet all the required NASA specs.