A Great Example of Engineering Thinking

I’m a big passionate about all engineering fields. Some time ago, while I was looking for something on Youtube, I came across a documentary trailer about an alternative project to send a tripulated mission to Mars. The documentary was called The Mars Underground and, after watching it, I was fascinated with some engineering aspects of the film and it moved me to write this post on engineering thinking.

In 1990, NASA formed a team to plan a manned mission to Mars. After 90 days, they came up with a very ambitious and complicated plan which included things like developing nuclear powered spaceships and assembling them on earth’s orbit. The cost of the entire project was 450 Billion Dollars and they estimated to arrive on Mars in 20 or 30 years. With these budget and deadlines it came as no surprise that the project was turned down at the US congress.

Some time after that, Martin Marietta, a NASA’s contractor company, formed a 12-man team led by Dr. Robert Zubrin to start thinking about better alternatives to carry out that mission.

The team identified the drawbacks in NASA’s plan and starting from scratch, they designed an alternative plan based on simple premises: travel light, try to depart from earth surface and use existing technology to land on Mars in 10 year’s time.

Drove by their passion and commitment, the team developed a new plan called Mars Direct, with an estimated cost of 30 billion dollars (only 7% of the NASA’s project cost). They found very clever ways to overcome the challenges of the project and came up with a feasible and more efficient way of doing things using the existing technology.

To illustrate their innovative approach, I’d like to point out some of their ideas from the movie.

In NASA’s original plan, they were unable to launch the mission from Earth surface due to the excessive weight. The main reason for that was that they were carrying the fuel to travel back to Earth. The new team decided to use methane oxygen rocket fuel so they could produce the fuel to travel back on Mars by a simple chemical process. This process was widely used during the 19th-century and they would use the gases from Mars’ atmosphere to produce the fuel.

Since making the fuel there was too risky, they decided to send an unmanned spaceship several months in advance that would start the fuel production so when the tripulated mission arrive, they would have the fuel already waiting for them.

This alternative project was presented to NASA and well received by most of the people. Unfortunately, it was never approved because of a combination of political, economical and other reasons explained during the film.

All in all, what I wanted to highlight in this post is the fact that when a group of people put their passion and commitment to solve a problem and they get rid of previous concepts and assumptions, great things can be achieved.

Many times in manufacturing (or business) environments, we deal with problems always from the same point of view and everybody assumes that is just the way things are.

Throughout history, we can see that the people who made the difference were the ones that started thinking on the solution without paying attention to the status quo. Dr. Zubrin and his team are an excellent example of this.

The main point that I want to make from this post is that you should question everything, even the things that everybody takes for granted and keep the solution simple. I like sophisticated technological systems, but even more I admire a simple and effective solution to a highly complex problem.

Thanks for reading!

Have you ever found solutions out of the box? Did you find an easier way to change things that were considered permanent? Please share your comments.


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