Real Engineers

I earned an undergraduate degree in engineering from a prestigious and notoriously competitive university.  After that I went on to do engineering research and complete a graduate degree in engineering from another major university with a reputation for excellence in engineering; along the way I wrote and defended a thesis and authored several papers which were published in professional engineering journals.

When I came to work for NASA, I was fortunate to get a job in the operations area:  mission control.  A thorough understanding of engineering principles and practices was mandatory for my job.

So I was floored just a few months later when I first heard it:  “you are not a real engineer”. I was just “an ops guy”.

In the NASA pantheon of heros, the highest accolade any employee can be granted is that they are a “real engineer”.  Not even astronauts rate higher.  The heart of the organization worships at the altar of engineering:  accomplishment, precision, efficiency.  What does it take to be a “real engineer”?

In the ethos and mythology of NASA, a real engineer is one who has several characteristics. 

First, they must have a superb grasp of the physics of their subject, a complete an total knowledge of the details of their specialty.  This almost goes without saying.  No nincompoops allowed; no fuzzy thinkers who are vague on the basic concepts.  A “real engineer” knows his arcane stuff forwards and backwards and from the middle out towards both ends and can recite it in his sleep.  “Let me tell you about the inviscid terms of the Navier-Stokes equation . . . ” a real engineer might say. 

Second, a “real engineer” must create something, taking it from original concept to working, functioning reality.  No view graph engineers ever get the title “real engineer”.  If it doesn’t fly or move or compute or generate power, or do some concrete something, you haven’t built something real and without building something real, you are never going to be a “real engineer.”  And the thing has to work; if it flops, then you are merely a tinkerer, not a “real engineer”.

Thirdly, “real engineers” are mild mannered; never needing to raise their voices, not loquacious, not given to long and convoluted discussions.  No, real engineers are soft spoken and terse; they are recognized by their brevity and the ability to concisely summarize a technical point in a way that admits to no further discussion.

NASA is full of “real engineers”. 

So us poor ops guys, who never had a drafting table, who never went into the machine shop to hand blueprints to a tech, who never got to blow up anything on the test stand; we failed miserably on the standard of being a “real engineer”.  We merely operated the stuff that the real engineers built.

Along the same lines . . . .

I have been privileged to watch the advanced concept boys at work.  They are marvelous.  Through the study of all past and current rockets they have developed a number of “empirical models” — rules of thumb if you will — that can help in the initial ideas about building spacecraft.  If you want to lift a certain number of metric tonnes to low earth orbit, given a particular rocket type (solid, liquid, hypergolic, cryogenic, hydrogen, kerosene, etc.) the advanced concept boys can give you a variety of options based on known ratios of structure weight to propellant weight, burn out mass, etc.  And they can give you a rough guess at the cost.  And they can evaluate multiple options and compare them one to another in very short order. 

In the summer of 2002, I got to participate in an exercise for about two months of possible design options of manned missions to Mars.  The advanced concept boys generated a new heavy lift launch vehicle about every other day and could compare all the designs against each other on a number of figures of merit.  Its heady work to invent new Saturn V class rockets in the computer lab.  Taller, shorter, with solid boosters or not, using kerosene or hydrogen or whatever.  One engine, two engines, five engines, twenty engines; two stages, three stages, four.  Whew.  At the end of two months the team had a great list of options and the pros and cons for every launcher.  And I found out that the advanced concept boys have been studying this problem for 40 years!  They have evaluated hundreds, thousands of various options.  Then they refined their studies, re-examined the basis for their methodologies and started in again. 

But you know what?  Advanced concept folks, even with all their knowledge of engineering principles, they are not “real engineers”. 

Real engineering starts after the viewgraphs stop.  Real engineers take the concept — boiled down as it may have been from hundreds of starting options — they take the concept and start making it real.  When you have to really design and build the rocket in its detailed glory; when you have to take the subsystems out to the test stand and start them up and see if they hang together; when you go from weight estimates to actual plans and find out what the gizmo really does weigh — that is real engineering. 

That is where you find out if the concept really will work or not; what the real problems are and how to solve them. 

When the rocket really flies you have proof positive of the real stuff of engineering — and whether you have it or not.

That is what real engineering is all about.


16 thoughts on “Real Engineers”

  1. Real engineers probably teach themselves instead of spending year after year taking post graduate courses.
    The American aerospace contractors stand alone in requiring X degree & Y certificate above all else while Russians, Indians, Chinese & Europeans R launching the moon missions with people who picked up guidance & propulsion systems in their garages.

  2. Mr. Hale:

    I’ve noticed many things in my thirty years as an engineer, but one that comes to mind after reading your excellent post is, all real engineers are by default “ops” guys, but not all ops guys are engineers.

    You sir, are a real engineer.



  3. Very well said. When I was young, I also wanted to work for NASA. In those green years of my life, I though that working for NASA was as simple as going for an interview and passing it. When I grew up, I realized it was everything but a simple interview.

    Hands down, NASA employs some of the best minds the world has to offer. Every small details in the daily work is critical, and it is just unbelievable as to how NASA employees manage to handle these pressures on a daily basis.

    One single decision by the engineers is a life or death situation for the shuttle crews. Still, the excellent track record speaks for itself. Congrats NASA, on being a true genius industry.

  4. Do you answer questions for school children? My son is in 7th grade and needs to interview someone related to his topic of “aerodynamics” for science. If he sent you some questions via email would you be able to answer them? This post on Real Engineering is very good and he can use some of the information for his project, but I thought I would check. Thank you, Dana Peitso

  5. Wayne: At least you have engineering degrees. Imagine where we experimental psychologists reside on the NASA totem pole! LOL!

  6. But if the fundamental concept is flawed, there ain’t no amount of real engineering gonna save it. You gotta know when to abort the mission. It’s a whole lot easier, safer and cheaper to abort the mission in sim, than it is to do it in real life. You’ll have to trust me on that.

  7. Thanks Wayne! I am a “real” structural engineer on the space station. Down here in the “trenches” (as we say), we often don’t feel that people in the ops world appreciate us. Sometimes we feel that ops people get all the glory. So I really appreciate this post. I may even print it and put it in my cube to remind myself that ops folks do, in fact, appreciate “real” engineers. 🙂 Thanks again! Oh… by the way, we appreciate ops people too even if they get all the glory! 😉

  8. …and you never once said “Real engineers know how to use a slide rule!”

    By my reckoning, “real” engineers know how to use every piece of knowledge and experience regardless of where it comes from to complete their work.

    Sadly, the paradigm today is that if you didn’t study the “right” program, of didn’t go to the “right” school, your engineering degree is somehow diminished.

    That said, I wouldn’t trade my 30 years of experience for an “engineering” degree, even if it would give me a Shuttle seat.

    “Real” engineers design things, but field engineers make it work!
    I’d rather work in a trailer than a cubicle…;)

  9. Hey,

    Nice article, thanks for the read. Was interesting seeing your thoughts on what makes a good engineer. May sound very rubish but I have a NVQ Level 1 in engineering 😀

    Thanks again Wayne!

  10. Hi Mr. Hale,

    I hope someone is documenting on film the developments on the Constellation program and/or the COTS program. I am very interested to see how engineers on these programs work, it must be very exciting to develop new rockets, and I would love to see how they solve problems, etc.. I am particularly interested in the developments at SpaceX and there switch from ablative to regenerative cooling, could you explain the difference please?


  11. I would like to add another point. Real engineers live their work 24/7. My husband even after he is home from work goes into great detail about the aspects of his job. I haven't a clue what he is talking about most of the time, but being the good little wife, I listen. No matter where we are at or what we are doing he is always thinking and talking about the projects he is working on. He never leaves it at the door. There is such enthusiasm in his conversations it is difficult to stop him. I am blessed that he is doing something he loves.

  12. I can’t even imagine what it must take to be a real NASA engineer. Real interesting insight and way of looking at the engineering field in general. What I can mostly take from it is that you really need to focus on success and keep working hard at all time to reach levels like some of these people do!

    Nice article….


  13. Oh man, I really understand what you are saying as it is pretty much the same in the company where I work (Australias biggest telco) I am an engineer from a degree in Qld University but the work I am doing has other staff that have only seconday education and they are labelled engineers as well. What is worse is this section also has field staff that work in the stree and they want us to go out and help pull cables through mud etc because 'thats no different skillset than you already have … what the!
    cheers from Australia,

  14. I am particularly interested in the developments at SpaceX and there switch from ablative to regenerative cooling. I may even print it and put it in my cube !

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