Copernicus Books

An Imprint of Springer Science+Business Media

© 2007 Springer Science+Business Media, LLC

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Published in the United States by Copernicus Books, an imprint of Springer Science+Business Media.

Copernicus Books

Springer Science+Business Media

233 Spring Street

New York, NY 10013


Library of Congress Control Number: 2006922755

Manufactured in the United States of America. Printed on acid-free paper.


ISBN-10: 0-387-30876-8 ISBN-13: 978-0-387-30876-0


I'd like to thank all those who contributed to this book by their positive support, their helpful suggestions, and their sharp eyes for typos. Among these are my friends and colleagues Dr. James R. Wertz and Professor Tasos Lyrintzis; Purdue graduate students Janelle Boys, K. Joseph Chen, Karl Garman, Damon Landau, Kristin Medlock, Masataka Okutsu, Tracey Smith, Christoph Wagner, and Chit Hong "Hippo" Yam; my brother, Joseph A. Longuski, and my mother, Jeanette T. Longuski, and Ronit Binder, Dr. Michael Jokic, Dr. T. Troy McConaghy, Elma Witty, and Wendy Witty.

I thank my secretary, Karen L. Johnson, for her work in typing the corrections and for several thoughtful improvements. I thank doctoral candidate Mr. Masataka Okutsu for his delightful interior and cover illustrations. I also thank Dr. Harry (J.J.) Blom and Mr. Chris Coughlin (senior editor and assistant editor for astronomy & astrophysics at Springer) and Mr. Michael Koy (senior production editor at Springer) for promoting the publication of my book and for their kindness and patience throughout the process. Thanks also to freelance editor Paul Farrell for his advice and counsel, and to graphics consultant Jordan Rosenblum for making the cover and interior designs sparkle.

I hasten to add that the individuals named here (and those who have written encomia for the book) do not necessarily agree with all the opinions expressed by the author.

Above all, I thank my wife and best friend, Holly C. Longuski, who has given me the greatest encouragement and support.


Introduction 1


Chapter 1 Imagine It 5

Chapter 2 Work on the Big Picture 7

Chapter 3 Aim High 9

Chapter 4 BS! 11

Chapter 5 Brainstorm 13

Chapter 6 Create Desire 17

Chapter 7 Tell a Story 19

Chapter 8 Sleep on It 23

Chapter 9 Think JFK 25


Chapter 10 Get Real 29

Chapter 11 Play Games 31

Chapter 12 Simulate It 35

Chapter 13 Run a Thought Experiment 37

Chapter 14 Know Your Limits 39

Chapter 15 Weigh Ideas 41


Chapter 16 Ask Dumb Questions 45

Chapter 17 Ask Big Questions 47

Chapter 18 Ask "What If?" 51

Chapter 19 Ask: "Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?" 55

Chapter 20 Ask Just One More Question 59


Chapter 21 Prove Yourself Wrong 65

Chapter 22 Inspect for Defects 67

Chapter 23 Have a Backup Plan 71

Chapter 24 Do a Sanity Test 73

Chapter 25 Check Your Arithmetic 75

Chapter 26 Know the Risks 77

Chapter 27 Question Your Assumptions 81


Chapter 28 Keep It Simple, Stupid 85

Chapter 29 Draw a Picture 87

Chapter 30 Make a Mock-up 89

Chapter 31 Name the Beasts 93

Chapter 32 Look at the Little Picture 97

Chapter 33 Do the Math 99

Chapter 34 Apply Occam's Razor 101


Chapter 35 Minimize the Cost 105

Chapter 36 Minimize the Time 109

Chapter 37 Be Mr. Spock 113

Chapter 38 Make It Faster, Better, Cheaper

(But Not All Three!) 115

Chapter 39 Know When Bigger Is Better 117

Chapter 40 Let Form Follow Function 121

Chapter 41 Pick the Best People 125

Chapter 42 Make Small Improvements 127


Chapter 43 Learn by Doing 131

Chapter 44 Sharpen Your Axe 133

Chapter 45 Correct It on the Way 135

Chapter 46 Do Something 137

Chapter 47 Don't Ignore Trends 139

Chapter 48 Work on Your Average Performance 143

Chapter 49 Look Behind You 145

Chapter 50 Learn from Your Mistakes 147

Epilogue 149

Recommended Viewing: The Greatest Sci-Fi Films of the Twentieth Century 151

Recommended Reading and Bibliography 155

About the Author 159

About the Illustrator 161

Index 163


This is a book for the armchair thinker. There are no equations, no syllogisms, and no exercises with the solutions at the back of the book.

It is written not for rocket scientists (although they might enjoy it, too) but for the non-rocket scientist.

Before I wrote this book, I asked a number of people what they hoped to find in a book about how to think like a rocket scientist. "Do you want to know what rocket scientists actually think about and have it translated into ordinary language?" I asked, and everyone said, "No."

"Then would you prefer to know the methods that rocket scientists use—not the content—expressed in a way that you could apply to your everyday life?"

And then everyone said, "Yes."

The book you are holding does just that. (Mostly.)

Let me tell you the first secret about rocket scientists. They are not in it for the money. They are in it for the fun. They are the biggest dreamers on Earth because they dream on a cosmic scale. And they love sci-fi books and movies. Sometimes, the dopier the movie, the better they like it.

That's why I start Part I with "Dream." Dreaming about space travel is what makes rocket scientists tick. I end with Part VII, "Do," because the best part about rocket science is when those dreams come true. I give seven secrets of how to think like a rocket scientist as active verbs: "Dream," "Judge," "Ask," "Check," "Simplify," "Optimize," and "Do."

I talk about how we can all use some of the thinking techniques that rocket scientists learned from the extraordinary challenges of space exploration. This doesn't mean that rocket scientists are all geniuses or that they never make mistakes. They have been humbled often enough by catastrophic explosions, destruction of billiondollar satellites, and loss of life.

A great deal of effort is put into avoiding mistakes because mistakes are so costly. But some of the greatest lessons came from the worst failures.

The best known rule of thumb in the space business is Murphy's law: "If something can go wrong—it will!" Space history revolves around the struggle of beating Murphy's law.

In this book, I have written several short chapters about each of the seven secrets of how to think like a rocket scientist. I illustrate the principles with anecdotes, quotations and biographical sketches of famous scientists, ideas from sci-fi, personal stories and insights, and occasionally a bit of space history. At the back of the book, I give, not the solutions to brain teasers, but instead a list of imagination builders: my list of the greatest science fiction movies of the twentieth century. (The jury is still out on the twenty-first century.) I also provide a Recommended Reading and Bibliography list.

In the course of writing this book, I found it necessary to distinguish between "two NASAs": the NASA that put men on the moon and the NASA that built the space shuttle. From the original NASA, we can learn how to think like rocket scientists. Unfortunately, the latter NASA provides examples of how not to think like rocket scientists. Because my goal is to provide you, the reader, with thinking techniques distilled from the space program, I draw from the historical record—good and bad. I hasten to add that my occasional criticism of NASA as an institution in no way diminishes my admiration for its highly qualified scientists, engineers, technicians, and staff—some of the best talent in the world—who yearn for far greater challenges (and the requisite funding) to explore space.

I hope you enjoy this little collection of ideas and find some of the techniques useful.



"His adventure began with a dream . . . Robert Goddard had a waking dream about flying farther than anyone ever had, to other worlds in the sky."

David A. Clary Rocket Man

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