5 NASA Engineering Mindset Lessons for Engineers

NASA engineering has taken us to the moon and back. I’m going to go over 5 NASA engineering mindset lessons from the Apollo program, all engineers can use.

This will showcase the elite mindset required to do an improbable engineering feat.

The Moon landing in 1969 to this day is an iconic yet extraordinary moment for humankind.

I’m still fascinated by how far we humans have advanced since we moved out from caves thousands of years ago. Much of this advancement we can attribute to the human mindset.

Without a doubt, we can all learn so much from the amazing men and women who worked in NASA in the 1960s.

They helped create a blueprint on how to successfully tackle uber challenging problems.

So let’s get started and see how NASA engineering forever changed the world.

Important Note: the mission of the NASA Apollo program was to land humans on the moon. Then to bring them back safely. 

Where Apollo 11 was the first of the missions to land humans on the Moon. 

#1 Design around every last constraint

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

All engineers need to design with real-world constraints in mind. In other words, you play by the rules of the laws of nature.

To top it off, you need to abide by manmade laws. Thus, you follow the engineering code of ethics.

But also, this is the only way to deliver a working yet safe product.

This all took on a whole new meaning when NASA decided to land humans on the Moon. NASA had to develop a spacecraft for the Apollo program against all odds.

It’s one thing for Christopher Columbus to travel across the ocean on Earth with a wooden ship. It’s completely another undertaking to travel beyond Earth to the Moon.

What’s more, the technology of 1969 would look foreign to us today. Look no further than the Apple iPhone you keep in your back pocket. It has 100,000 times more processing power than the computers used in the Apollo 11 mission.

How insane is that?!

Yet, engineers managed to safely send humans to the Moon on top of a massive rocket. A 363-foot tall, 6,2000,000 pound Saturn V rocket, helped take three people to the Moon.

The three astronauts were Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins.

These astronauts successfully completed their mission through the help of three special spacecraft. The following are the spacecraft the Saturn V rocket launched 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 inside 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 failure.
  • Navigation: high precision navigation to reach and land on the Moon.
  • Fuel management: limit fuel consumption to limit spacecraft weight. Yet, safely travel to the moon and back.
  • Amenities: cater to all astronaut needs in a tiny spacecraft. This includes air, food, clothing, and a bathroom. All the while, provide all flight and work equipment.

With all these constraints, NASA engineers didn’t buckle. Their mindset remained optimistic despite all the challenges they faced.

Because more constraints, simply meant a more interesting and challenging problem. NASA engineers thrived in this environment.

One NASA engineer named Guy Thibodaux said,

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

In the end, NASA engineers left no stone unturned. Every constraint was heavily studied and not forgotten in the development stage.

So no matter the size of a project you work on, learn every constraint you’re working with.

#2 Choose a single solution and galvanize a team

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

Engineers a lot of the time have many solutions whirling in their minds. One solution doesn’t just pop in your mind, and you say, “this is it. I got it!”

Rather, you go through a creative process to complete a design.

Then after plenty of analysis, you settle on one solution to a problem. You then run with it, without looking back.

Otherwise, you’ll waste precious time without making any progress whatsoever.

This is best exemplified by how the U.S. beat the Russians to the Moon.

It all started when President Kennedy stood before Congress on May 25th, 1961. He called for human exploration to the moon.

The mission had become clear to all politicians. Even more so, to NASA’s leadership down to every engineer.

Then in 1961, Wernher von Braun made an important statement. Von Braun was the rocket pioneer, who served two roles in NASA.

He was the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Also, he was 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. was laser-focused on their mission at hand. In return, this galvanized engineers to work together.

The fusion of NASA engineering brainpower

It didn’t take long for NASA engineers to choose one design option for the mission.

In 1963, the Apollo program settled on one set-in-stone idea.

A Saturn V rocket would launch three men in a Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR). This was the plan!

Now, the only discussion was how engineers would execute this plan.

Whereas the Russians had no cohesion with their engineering efforts. The great Russian minds of Korolev, Glushko, Chhelomei, and Yangel never settled on a single design.

Thus, the brightest Russian minds didn’t properly collaborate together.

In engineering, many minds are always better than one, when everyone is on the same page. Hence the importance of single-mindedness in engineering efforts.

Of course, after you’ve beaten a problem to death with all solutions entertained.

The point is, put aside your ego. Work in hand with your fellow engineers. The end goal should always be about the betterment of humanity.

#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 problems. Rather, they dig deeper and deeper to find solutions.

Because solutions always exist. It’s just a matter of finding them.

Before 1969, no nation had made a manned mission to the Moon.

So, NASA engineers had to first define all the boundaries they had to stay inside of. The number of boundaries was endless as we already highlighted.

Thereafter, engineers had to determine what existing tech they could reuse. Then, what new tech they had to develop.

To accomplish this, NASA engineers broke problems down to their most fundamental level. Engineers left no stone unturned.

This type of mentality is the only way to successfully and safely execute a project.

Now, not all engineers will work to send humans beyond Earth. But, you need to always break problems down to their fundamental level.

Then, closely review all the details you’ve uncovered. Only then you’ll know all the variables you need to engineer around.

The design of the Apollo astronaut spacesuit

The goal wasn’t to just land on the moon. NASA wanted astronauts to step foot and walk on the moon.

Thus, NASA had put out a proposal for bids for the development of the Apollo spacesuits. Spacesuits are like mini spacecraft that protect astronauts from dangers found in space.

The task at hand was far from easy. These spacesuits alone would determine if an astronaut would survive the hostile environment.

Because a successful spacesuit needs to cater to humans at a fundamental level. More specifically, allow humans to work, remain comfortable, and most importantly stay alive.

Thus, the company that won the bid had to develop a spacesuit that considered all the following:

  • 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. Then, they had to try to stand back up. This was a critical requirement in a hostile new world.

Because what if astronauts fell on their back like a turtle flipped on its shell? They’d be stuck!

#4 Own your work and take full responsibility

It’s well known that most all Apollo program engineers owned their work.

They took full responsibility for their assigned tasks. In other words, they didn’t half-ass any parts of their work.

This level of ownership is what led to the success of the moon landing.

In July of 1969, each and every engineer held their breath with their hearts racing. 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. Thus, engineers had analyzed every last detail to death as if their lives depended on it.

This was and is the work culture of NASA. The responsibility placed on every person is tremendous.

But this responsibility creates high-performing engineers. NASA engineers thrived in this environment.

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. Figure out what you need to do, and then do it!

Because it’s unfair to other engineers who need to pick up your pieces. Plus, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice as you’ll never learn the ropes.

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.

Thus, the importance of always remaining optimistic. It’s the only way you can push through the moments of darkness.

Because you’ll have times when things seem hopeless. Especially when you work on the bleeding edge of technology.

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 have 5 rocket engines to handle the first stage of the mission.

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 engine was just too big, and it caused all types of operational problems. This led to the questioning if engines at this scale were even feasible.

This rattled NASA, as it could jeopardize the entire Apollo program.

But still, engineers remained optimistic. Despite the mounting growing pressure to develop a working engine.

The redesign of the F1 rocket engine

NASA engineers experimented by making all types of engine adjustments. This included the following design changes:

  • Adjust nozzle shape
  • Increase orifice diameter
  • Control the angle of entry of fuel and oxidizer
  • Control the pressure of entry of fuel and oxidizer
  • Limit gas rotation speed

After endless design changes, the engine finally performed as desired. It also met all design specs.

The work was grueling and took one and half years and thousands of engineering hours. Plus, 78 hours of live engine testing.

So optimism was a requirement to perfect the F1 rocket engine. Because it wasn’t one solution that suddenly fixed all issues. Rather, one small design improvement fed off another.

This also highlights the importance of hands-on experience for engineers.

When you tackle a challenging project, you need to come prepared. This means maximizing all your engineering abilities. At the same time, remaining optimistic in your efforts.

Conclusion

The success of the Apollo program was an engineering masterpiece. The mission was anything but easy.

But an impeccable engineering mindset helped foster all the amazing innovation.

This is why I find a strong mindset to be magnitudes more impactful than any formal education.

The beauty of it all is, you have complete control of molding your mindset. Shaping it into any powerful tool you desire to accomplish any goal.

It’s exactly how the Apollo program engineers took humans off from Earth and onto the Moon. This same mindset will then one day take humankind to Mars and beyond.

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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