5 NASA Engineering Mindset Lessons for Engineers

NASA engineering has taken us to the moon and back. Even more, NASA’s Apollo program has given engineers 5 invaluable mindset lessons.

These lessons showcase the elite mindset required to do improbable engineering feats. And one of the most extraordinary feats was the 1969 Moon landing. I’m going to discuss what engineers can learn from NASA’s Apollo program to level up.

Important Note: NASA’s Apollo program mission was to land humans on the moon and return them. And, Apollo 11 was the first of the missions to land humans on the Moon. 

For the Apollo missions, NASA engineers did a lot of engineering work. But also, many third-party engineering firms were involved. 

#1 Design around every last constraint

apollo 11 lunar module landing
Apollo 11 lunar module landing (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

All engineers design around real-world constraints driven by the laws of nature. But also, you follow human laws driven by the engineering code of ethics.

In NASA’s mission to the Moon, the constraint list was mind-boggling long. So much so, it makes Christopher Columbus’ voyage across the ocean in a wooden ship look like child’s play.

And if this wasn’t enough, the technology of 1969 looks completely foreign to us today. Just look at your Apple iPhone. It has 100,000 times more processing power than the computers used in the Apollo 11 mission. How insane is this?!

Despite these difficulties, engineers safely sent humans to the Moon. And the Saturn V rocket had the herculean task to pull this off. This rocket was a massive 363 feet tall and weighed 6,2000,000 pounds!

The Saturn V launched Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the Moon. In its launch, it also hauled the following mission-critical spacecraft into space:

  • Command Module Columbia
  • Service Module
  • Lunar Module Eagle

The design constraints of the Apollo 11 mission

It was certainly an undertaking for the ages. To pull off this engineering feat, NASA engineers worked around the following constraints:

  • Cost: stay within their $20 to $40 billion budget.
  • Distance: travel 238,900 miles to the moon. Before the missions to the moon, the highest traveled altitude was 100 miles.
  • Specs: meet all equipment operational specs. This includes on Earth and thousands of miles away on the Moon.
  • Materials: protect humans from radiation and extreme temperatures. But also, protect electronics from radiation.
  • Navigation: high precision navigation to reach and land on the Moon.
  • Fuel management: limit fuel consumption to minimize spacecraft weight. Yet, safely travel to the moon and back.
  • Amenities: cater to all astronaut needs in a tiny spacecraft. This includes oxygen, water, food, clothing, and a bathroom. All the while, provide all flight and work equipment.

Given all these constraints, NASA engineers didn’t buckle but remained optimistic. To them, more constraints simply meant a more interesting and challenging problem. One NASA engineer named Guy Thibodaux captured this sentiment the best,

“It was the greatest place to work in the world.”

In the end, NASA engineers left no stone unturned. Every constraint was heavily studied in their design stage. So the lesson is, no matter the size of your project, learn and understand EVERY last constraint. This then leads to a successful and working solution.

#2 Choose a single solution and galvanize a team

apollo 11 1969 launch
Apollo 11 1969 launch (Photo Credit: NASA)

Engineers often have many solutions whirling in their minds. It’s not common for a solution to just pop in your mind, and you say, “this is it. I got it!”

Rather, you go through a lengthy creative process to complete a design. Then, after plenty of analysis, you settle on one solution to run with. Otherwise, you’ll waste precious time going in circles without making any progress.

This is in fact how the U.S. beat the Russians to the Moon. The story starts with President Kennedy standing before Congress on May 25th, 1961. He called for human exploration to the moon, and the mission then became clear to all politicians. Even more, the mission became crystal clear to NASA leadership, down to every last engineer.

In the same year in 1961, a prominent space industry figure named Wernher von Braun made a statement. Wernher Von Braun was the rocket pioneer, who served two roles in NASA. He was the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the chief architect of the Saturn V rocket. Von Braun said Kennedy’s talk,

“puts the program into focus. … Everyone knows what the moon is, what this decade is, what it means to get some people there.”

In short, the U.S. became laser-focused on its Moon mission. And this galvanized engineers to work together.

The fusion of engineering brainpower at NASA

It didn’t take long for NASA engineers to choose one design option for the mission. In 1963, the Apollo program settled on using a Saturn V rocket to launch three men in a Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR). Now, the only discussion was how engineers would execute this plan.

The Russians on the other hand had no cohesion with their engineering efforts. The great Russian minds of Korolev, Glushko, Chhelomei, and Yangel never settled on a single design. This meant the brightest Russian minds couldn’t properly collaborate together.

In most instances, in engineering, many minds are always better than one. BUT, only when everyone can eventually get on the same page. Hence the importance of single-mindedness in engineering efforts.

The lesson is, put aside your ego. Work in hand with your fellow engineers. The end goal is always to execute a single mission in the most efficient and effective manner.

#3 Pick apart a problem to the fundamental level

single passenger mercury capsule
Single passenger Mercury capsule schematic, which fueled greater human space exploration (Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In the real world, engineering problems aren’t black and white. They’re a tangled mess of variables with many missing puzzle pieces. Yet, great engineers don’t get discouraged by these challenges. They only dig deeper and think more creatively to find solutions.

Before 1969, no nation had made a manned mission to the Moon. So, NASA engineers had to first define all the problem parameters as we discussed in Lesson #1. Next, engineers determined the existing tech they could use and the tech they had to develop.

To do this, NASA engineers broke the mission down to its most fundamental level. This stage of the design was of utmost importance. Because even the smallest hiccup could lead to mission failure.

Now, not all engineers will work to send humans beyond Earth. But, it’s important you always break problems down to a granular level. Next, you closely review what you discover. Only then, you’ll know the variables you need to engineer around. This lesson subscribes to first principles thinking popularized by Elon Musk.

The design of the Apollo astronaut spacesuit

The goal of NASA wasn’t to just land on the Moon. NASA wanted astronauts to step foot and walk on the Moon. So, NASA put out a proposal for bids for the development of the Apollo spacesuits. Spacesuits are like mini spacecraft used to protect astronauts from the dangers found in space.

So not surprisingly, the development was far from easy. Plus, the specs for the spacesuits were extremely long and involved. The company with the winning bid had to design around the following spacesuit specs:

  • Provide enough pressure to keep body fluids in a liquid state
  • Supply oxygen and remove carbon dioxide
  • Maintain a comfortable temperature
  • Allow proper flexibility with all human joints
  • Allow for finger mobility to handle tools
  • Protect against meteor dust
  • No flammable materials
  • Minimal suit weight

What’s more, many of the initially submitted suits failed a critical fall test. Astronauts had to fall on their backs and try to stand back up. Because the last thing you want is to fall back like a turtle on its shell and be stuck on the Moon.

#4 Own your work and take full responsibility

It’s well known most Apollo program engineers owned their work. They took full responsibility for their assigned tasks. And this level of ownership led to the success of the moon landing.

In July of 1969, each and every engineer held their breath with the Apollo 11 launch. Depending on who did what, engineers kept a close eye on their contributions. The following kept each engineer on their toes as they watched from thousands of miles away:

  • Calculation of the fuel supply to reach the moon and back
  • Engine performance to reach the Moon, and then land and take off
  • Computer code to guide the spacecraft
  • Proper functioning amenities in the spacecraft to keep the astronauts alive
  • Calculation of the Moon’s gravity for planned spacecraft operations

Engineers understood how even a misplaced screw could cause mission failure. So, this drove engineers to analyze every last detail to death as if their lives depended on it. This was the work culture of NASA and it created high-performing engineers.

The lesson is, don’t expect others to pick up your slack. When you’re given a task, do it to the best of your ability from the start. Because it’s unfair to other engineers who need to pick up your pieces. Plus, you’re limiting your learning and you’ll never become a 10x engineer. Even more, this is how engineering failures happen.

#5 Remain optimistic against all odds 

saturn v f1 engines
F-1 engines stored in the F-1 Engine Preparation area (Photo Credit: NASA)

In engineering, you’ll have no shortage of challenges and frustrations. Especially when you work on the bleeding edge of technology. So, it’s important to always remain optimistic to push through all the dark moments.

For the Apollo missions, engineers had to figure out how to get a 6.2 million pound fully fueled rocket off the ground. This required designing unworldly rocket engines. These rocket engines had to be 10 times more powerful than any U.S. rocket ever made. NASA called these rocket engines F-1 engines.

The Saturn V would use 5 rocket engines to handle the first stage of the mission. And each rocket engine would produce roughly 1.5 million pounds of thrust. So, these engines would consume 3 tons of fuel and oxidizer every second!

So how do you develop such a beast of a rocket engine? Some engineers believed scaling up existing rockets would do the trick. But early tests weren’t kind to this assumption. Engines were exploding in the testing phase, which traced back to combustion instability. The engines were just too big and causing all types of operational problems.

This led to the questioning if the engines could even scale up. And this rattled NASA, as the entire Apollo program was in limbo. But still, engineers remained optimistic.

The redesign of the F1 rocket engine

NASA engineers experimented by making all the following engine design adjustments:

  • Nozzle shape
  • Orifice diameter
  • The angle of entry of fuel and oxidizer
  • The pressure of entry of fuel and oxidizer
  • Gas rotation speed

After endless design changes, the engine finally performed as desired. The work was grueling and took one and a half years and thousands of engineering hours. Plus, 78 hours of live engine testing.

Without optimism though, this redesign wouldn’t have been possible. Because one solution didn’t suddenly fix the issues. Rather, one small design improvement fed off another. This also highlights the importance of hands-on experience for engineers.

The lesson is to remain optimistic despite the challenges you face. Because if not for optimism, we’d still maybe be living in caves.

Conclusion

The success of the Apollo program was an engineering masterpiece. The program brought to the forefront the amazing mindset of many engineers. And this highlighted why you need a strong mindset in engineering to be at the forefront of your industry.

Because world-changing accomplishments don’t happen by luck. Rather, they require awesome teams of people who share the same mindset.

What’s your greatest takeaway from NASA engineering with the Apollo program? Do you think the mindset is what separates average engineers from great engineers?


Featured Image Photo Credit: NASA (image cropped)

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