Now anyone can think like a rocket scientist, thanks to a new book by a Purdue University professor.
“This book is for people who would like to learn the methods rocket scientists use and have them told in a way that you can apply to your everyday life,” said James Longuski, a NASA veteran, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and author of “The Seven Secrets of How to Think Like a Rocket Scientist.”
Thinking like a rocket scientist is a valuable skill because the same general methods apply to the completion of any project, said Longuski, who was a maneuver analyst and a mission designer for nine years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif., before coming to Purdue in 1988.
The 167-page book is arranged in seven parts: Dream, Judge, Ask, Check, Simplify, Optimize and Do.
“In the Dream section, I talk about the rocket science types I got to know when I worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory,” Longuski said. “We used to get together to watch science fiction films, both classics and those really cheesy B flicks from the ’50s and ’60s. The point is, having fun and using creativity and imagination is a very important way of thinking that rocket scientists use.”
In the Judge segment, Longuski gets down to the serious business of thinking like a rocket scientist.
“After you dream and brainstorm and throw ideas around, you have to start sifting through the stuff and see what really makes sense,” he said.
In the Ask section, Longuski urges everyone to “ask dumb questions.”
“The only dumb question is the one that doesn’t get asked,” he said, citing an example from the failure of NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter, which disintegrated while entering the Martian atmosphere in 1999.
“During the planning of this mission, the dumb question that wasn’t asked was ‘Are these calculations in metric or in the English system?'” Longuski said. “Later it was learned that some of the engineers used the metric system and others used the English system, and they interpreted the metric numbers as being English numbers, which ultimately doomed the spacecraft.”
Don’t forget to “ask one more question,” he adds.
“My favorite non sci-fi program is ‘Columbo’ because he always asks one more question,” Longuski said. “The reason he has to ask so many questions is because he can’t stand inconsistencies. His universe has to all add up, and if the slightest thing doesn’t make sense, he has to know why. Most people don’t think that way, but rocket scientists do.”
In the Simplify section, Longuski tells the reader to think about the space shuttle’s complex design, which makes it more prone to catastrophe. He urges readers to keep their projects as simple as possible, quoting Einstein, who once said: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex and more violent. It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”
In Optimize, he tells the reader to find the best way to accomplish the goal of a specific project.
“You need to define what ‘best’ means, depending on your specific goal,” he said. “If your goal is to improve gas economy, you will have to make different decisions than you would if your goal was to break the land-speed record.”
Longuski teaches courses in dynamics, aerospace optimization and spacecraft design. He has written more than 150 conference and journal papers in the general area of astrodynamics, including topics such as spacecraft dynamics and control, reentry theory, mission design, space trajectory optimization, and a new test of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. He also has worked with Buzz Aldrin on a human transportation system to Mars.
The book, published by Springer Science + Business Media LLC, sells for $25.
For more information: Purdue.edu.