Purdue News

November 27, 2006

New book instructs anyone how to think like a rocket scientist

James Longuski
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Now anyone can think like a rocket scientist, thanks to a new book written 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 and professor of aeronautics and astronautics. "There is not one single equation."

Book cover
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.

His book, "The Seven Secrets of How to Think Like a Rocket Scientist," is being released this month with accolades by moonwalker Buzz Aldrin and other space luminaries.

"It's really great," Aldrin enthused on the book's back cover.

William O'Neil, who was project manager for the Galileo missions to Jupiter, was likewise impressed, calling the book "a must-read for everyone."

The 167-page book is arranged in seven parts: Dream, Judge, Ask, Check, Simplify, Optimize and Do.

The book includes inspirational quotes from great thinkers ranging from Albert Einstein to Ralph Waldo Emerson, South Pole explorer Ernest Shackleton to Jedi Master Yoda of "Star Wars" fame.

"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, 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. "You start from a synthesis, a creative point of view in the dreaming phase and then you go into a judging phase to assess what really works."

In the Ask section, Longuski urges the reader to "ask dumb questions."

"The only dumb question is the one that doesn't get asked," he said.

An example he cites is 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."

Longuski also admonishes readers to often ask "What if?" to ward off "Murphy's Law," which states: "If anything can go wrong, it will."

"We had a nice collection of what-ifs during the Apollo days," he said, referring to the moon missions of the 1970s."Unfortunately, over the next three decades NASA forgot the hard-won lessons of its youth."

And, don't forget to "ask one more question," he instructs.

"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 Check section, Longuski invokes the ghost of Shackleton, whose meticulous planning made him perhaps the safest explorer to ply the seas, having never lost a sailor.

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."

Longuski also counsels the reader to be as accurate with language as possible, noting that imprecision with words can have serious consequences.

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."

The book drives home this point with a quote from Emerson, who said: "A man can write a better book, preach a better sermon or make a better mouse trap. Although he builds his house in the woods, the world will beat a path to his door."

And finally, in Do, Longuski tells the reader that no degree of planning can replace the value of experience, demonstrating this point with a lesson he calls "the parable of pots," in which an art teacher divides a class into two halves. The students in one half of the class are told that they should make as many clay pots as possible and that they will be graded on the total weight of their pots at the end of the semester. The other students are told to make only one pot and that they will be graded on the quality.

"At the end of the class it turns out that the quantity potmakers also made the highest quality pots," Longuski said. "Why? Because they weren't worried about perfection. They were worried about doing. They did a lot, and they learned a lot. And meanwhile these other students who were concentrating on quality sat around theorizing about quality, almost afraid to do anything, and so they didn't get the experience of doing."

The hardcover book, which is illustrated with drawings by Masataka Okutsu, a Purdue doctoral student in aeronautics and astronautics, was published by Springer Science + Business Media LLC, and sells for $25.

Longuski teaches courses in dynamics, aerospace optimization and spacecraft design. He is an associate fellow of the Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and has written more than 150 conference and journal papers in the general area of astrodynamics, including such topics as spacecraft dynamics and control, re-entry 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.

Writer: Emil Venere, (765) 494-4709, venere@purdue.edu

Source: James Longuski, (765) 494-5139, longuski@ecn.purdue.edu

Note to Journalists: James Longuski will have a book signing from 2-4 p.m. on Dec. 2 at the Barnes & Noble bookstore, 2323 Sagamore Parkway S., in Lafayette, Ind.

James Longuski, a NASA veteran and professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue, has written a book to help anyone think like a rocket scientist. His book, "The Seven Secrets of How to Think Like a Rocket Scientist," is being released with accolades from moonwalker Buzz Aldrin and other space luminaries. Longuski's book includes anecdotes from his NASA experience, practical advice for readers and inspirational quotes from great thinkers. (Purdue News Service photo/David Umberger)

A publication-quality image is available at https://news.uns.purdue.edu/images/+2006/longuski-rocketbook.jpg


A new book by James Longuski, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue, is written to help the average person "think like a rocket scientist." The book, "The Seven Secrets of How to Think Like a Rocket Scientist," is being released with accolades by moonwalker Buzz Aldrin and other space luminaries. (Springer Science + Business Media LLC)

A publication-quality image is available at https://news.uns.purdue.edu/images/+2006/longuski-book.jpg

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


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