Secret of Rocket Science: Getting the Details Right
“This is not rocket science…” How many times have you heard that expression? In general, that statement is used to indicate that whatever you’re doing is not overly complex. It’s a tribute to the perceived complexity of rocket science. But just what is rocket science? Is it some arcane form of engineering that doesn’t relate to the things done in the commercial world? Or is there more to it? And, more importantly, can rocket science be relevant in today’s fast-paced market?
Dictionary.com’s first definition of rocket science is “rocketry” (English teachers used to scream at me for using different forms of the word in the definition but dictionaries seem to get away with it). Rocketry, in turn, is defined as “the science of rocket design, development, and flight.” The website’s second definition of rocket science is “something requiring great intelligence, especially mathematical ability.” So, on the surface, it appears rocket science is just that, the science of building and launching rockets with a nod toward things being complicated. Neither of those definitions satisfies me. Based on my experience in the industry, I believe they are incomplete. Only when you get into the nitty-gritty of a space launch does the essence of rocket science become clear. Rocket science is all about getting the details right.
With a space launch there are no second chances. There are no do-overs. If the launch fails, that’s it. A billion dollars may end up in the ocean, or scattered in pieces around the launch pad, or in a useless orbit around the Earth. No second chances. Once in space you can’t bring your malfunctioning satellite or probe into a local garage for repairs. You build in redundancies when you can and work to reduce the risk as much as you can.
The launch vehicle and its payload combined have hundreds of thousands of parts, subassemblies, and assemblies that must all work and function together for success to occur. A system with a million parts and 99.99% reliability can still exhibit a hundred malfunctions, of which any one may lead to a catastrophic failure. So the emphasis in the commercial space launch world is on the details. You have to get them all right. So when it comes down to it, rocket science is really the science of managing millions of details, while also working to bring operational risk down.
How does that relate to you? Your project of replacing a machine on your assembly line, or developing a new drug, or testing your electronics package certainly doesn’t involve millions of details. True, but it still may entail hundreds, or even thousands, of interrelated tasks, components, and tests or inspections when you add up everything that has to be done. These are the details you must account for in what you do. Furthermore, there may be one detail that is ignored because your team members believe someone else must be paying attention to it. You find this out after it rises up and bites you in the butt. Or there may be a detail you just didn’t think of. There’s a reason why project management is one of the core competencies in rocket science. But it’s far from the only one.
Every component, subassembly, and assembly used in a rocket launch is either analyzed or tested to determine its suitability for use during the launch or on the payload. For many projects and products this idea of analyzing and testing everything may seem like overkill and too expensive and time consuming. In the commercial world it probably is. Until you have a problem. Let me give you a real life past example. An automobile OEM supplier couldn’t seem to get its electronics to pass its shock or vibration testing. Since the electronics were packaged the way it was done previously they were confident in the design. However, to be on the safe side, because this new version was slightly different in size and shape, they decided to run some tests. They used the same fixture they always used that never had a problem. They made what seemed like a very slight modification to that fixture to accommodate new mounting holes. Yet the parts failed.
In discussions with them, the question arose whether it was the actual electronic hardware that failed or whether it was something in the test set-up causing the failure. They didn’t have the capability to run the analysis to know whether the fixture, the environment, or the part design was the cause. My company had the capability. Our engineer on the project had done this sort of analysis countless times. We proved the fixture was resonating, adding higher loads than the electronic components would see in real life. We helped them redesign the fixture and their parts passed.
Rocket Science Technologies, Inc. has the knowledge and experience to help you in situations like this. We have the experience to guide you through this kind of failure recovery in an efficient manner to find a solution. We can also help you plan your next new product design and development to help avoid these kinds of issues. We can help you corral those details so the risk of failure or issues is significantly decreased. We can’t guarantee success, but we can improve the chances dramatically. And, in the case of something going wrong, we can help you get back on track and recover.
Rocket Science Technologies, Inc., has gathered engineers, physicists, mathematicians, and project managers as associates, available on an as-needed basis, to add their know-how to help you get past even the most challenging technical obstacles. All of RST’s personnel have shown through their careers a propensity for taking on tough problems and solving them. We relish solving technical challenges. We also understand the needs of the commercial market for reduced costs and higher velocity to production and market. Check us out at http://rocketscitech.com.
Using the Risk Management Process to Address Global Warming
I’m a trained project manager with a project management certification or PMP. As such, part of my PMP training includes risk management, a process used in industry to manage the prospective risks or uncertainties encountered during a project. After reviewing the discussion on global warming I’ve come to a conclusion that risk management needs to be applied to the global warming debate. Risk management provides an approach to dealing with an issue that has some probability of occurrence and has the potential for devastating consequences. If you know something is definitely going to happen it’s easier to weigh the costs and make a decision to deal with the consequences if they’re bad enough to warrant action. It becomes more difficult to deal with the consequences of something that might happen. In the latter case, you have to weigh the costs of mitigating something that might not happen (and therefore you’ve wasted the money) versus not doing something and dealing with the consequences. The tradeoff is like determining to purchase insurance.
The idea of my applying risk management to global warming came about during my involvement in a number of LinkedIn group discussions centering on whether global warming/climate change is real or not, and to what degree humanity is responsible for it. Some of the discussions occurred in LinkedIn discussion groups representing science organizations, or at least people interested in science, and were quite technical in nature. The discussions delved into interpretation of geological data particularly from ice cores and evidence of past climate cycles. In the discussions, it seemed to me the term global warming referred to human-influenced changes in climate, while climate change is used for natural, long term changes in climate.
The media has reported that a majority of climate scientists support the idea of human-influenced global warming. In these LinkedIn discussions I observed the scientific opposition centered on the interpretation of geological data, and the lack of validation of climate models. It was pointed out in the LinkedIn discussions that the primary climate prediction model is in its 11th generation of iteration and we’re still not accurately modeling what has occurred already, no less the future. A recent article in the NY Times confirmed that the simulations are struggling, not because they’re wrong, but because they are limited by the complexity of the system and also by current computer capabilities.
To me, with my experience as an engineering project manager, it comes as no surprise that computer models and simulations sometimes don’t match measured data perfectly. The more complex a system, the more difficult it is for a computer model to perfectly match real world data. In some instances, as in the case of climate modelling, it becomes an iterative process, where each successive version of the model gets closer to the data as the modelers gain a better understanding of the physics, i.e., the response, of the system to various inputs. Sometimes, if a system is complex enough, it becomes a matter of available computer power. However, even when the model correlation to the data isn’t perfect, the simulations can be used to predict data trends. The models then become qualitative tools to help make decisions concerning a course of action.
Climate models are among the most complicated of all technical simulations, requiring the most powerful computers we have. I expect it will be a while before we can solve these models with a fine enough grid to get us the answers we need. Problem is, while we’re waiting, the Earth may be changing.
Prompted by the discussions and my thought of applying risk management to global warming I did research into the consequences of global warming, focusing on the potential impact to the coast of the United States if the oceans rise 7-10 feet as predicted. This is one of the primary outcomes described by climate scientists. Note, I was dealing with these as potential outcomes. So if the seas rise by the levels expected, a good portion of Manhattan would be under water, as would parts of the Carolinas, the Florida peninsula, and parts of Texas. The West Coast, with its higher shorelines, at least north of Los Angeles, would be less impacted. If you look at these consequences worldwide it gets even worse. Coastal flooding due to storm surge will also increase significantly. There will be many more Hurricane Sandys, and they will become more violent.
I also investigated the predicted weather pattern shifts across the US. Increased droughts are projected for the West Coast, including more forest fires and water shortages. Parts of the Midwest would also face severe droughts, key habitat changes, and higher temperatures severely impacting its ability to continue acting as the breadbasket of America. Alterations in habitats to birds and other animals will have major consequences on the insect population. There is also an expectation for the East Coast of increased occurrences of storms like Hurricane Sandy, possibly with even more increased intensity. Weather over the Midwest is also expected to turn more violent.
These were indeed dire predictions. Even if they’re only half right, the negative impact on our economy, and the potential for loss of life are still very high. Project management practices dictate that when identifying a risk with consequences to the project potentially as dire as the global warming predictions, even if the engineering simulations were mixed or uncertain, a risk mitigation plan is required. Even if you believe the probability is only 20% that global warming is real, the consequences are significant enough to require a plan and a response.
So how do we deal with a risk like this? In industry, risk management provides a process to address risk. A quick sidelight. I received my PMP certification from the Project Management Institute, which is recognized worldwide. PMI publishes the Guide to Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) which summarizes the best processes involved in project management. Risk management is one of those processes included in the PMBOK®. There are four methods of dealing with risk:
- Accept the risk: Acknowledge the risk and accept the consequences.Let’s look at the four options of dealing with the risks of global warming and climate change:
- Avoid the risk: Remove the risk by eliminating whatever is causing the risk
- Transfer the risk: Pass it on to someone else, e.g., purchasing insurance
- Mitigate the risk: Make changes to reduce the probability of the risk occurring or prepare plans to ameliorate the consequences once they happen
Let’s look at the four options of dealing with the risks of global warming and climate change:
- Avoiding the risk involves eliminating the causes of the risk. I don’t believe we have a really good option for avoiding global warming/climate change at this point. If the changes are the result of natural climate processes, as some advocate, there is little we can do to avoid them. If they’re due to human influence, I think it’s impractical to expect an instantaneous change to less polluting energy sources. It’s unreasonable to expect every country in the world, or even the major polluters, to stop using fossil fuels immediately. It will take a decade or more to get the plan in place and to begin making all the changes. Politically, it just isn’t going to happen. Besides, we’re already seeing some of the predicted effects. I believe we’re just too far along to avoid at least some of the global warming/climate change consequences. (This is different than mitigating them which will be described later).
- Transferring the risk is the next method of dealing with risk. To me this method is unacceptable because the consequences are even half as bad as predicted, there isn’t enough insurance money in the world to pay for the consequences, not to mention the cost in lives lost to flooding and famine. The only thing we’d be doing is transferring the consequences to our children.
- Accepting the risk signifies indicates the risk is acceded to because the cost of risk avoidance is unacceptable compared to the cost of the consequence. This category is usually used only for risks with low impact consequences or for risks with damaging consequences but with an extremely low probability of occurrence. Opponents of global warming will obviously favor this approach. It’s the one seen as having the least near-term impact on the economy because we continue on our path of utilizing fossil fuels.
- Finally, the fourth method, risk mitigation. This involves taking action to reduce the probability of occurrence of the risk or to reduce its impact. Risk mitigation, then, requires we start addressing those consequences regardless of cause (natural or manmade). For example, we can begin planning our response to coastal flooding on a national scale. If there is a significant probability that human-induced component to changes in climate, then it may also not be too late to reduce the impact and perhaps even influence the degree to which it occurs (as opposed to completely avoiding it). We can accomplish this by reducing the emission of greenhouse gases by increasing the use of alternative energy sources. Replacing old industries with new is part of the creative destruction process that has occurred throughout human industry. (See my LinkedIn Pulse post Horse Manure, Buggy Whips, and Global Warming) In creative destruction, the displaced workers often find work in the new industry.
In my opinion, it comes down to which is worse:
- Accepting the impact of global warming/climate change happening and we aren’t prepared for it with all of the consequences because we wanted to keep the status quo, or
- Waiting for 100% proof that global warming is real in order to protect the status quo and then finding out that it’s too late for many of the mitigations identified, or
- Begin the mitigations identified to reduce the effects of global warming/climate change (and accepting the cost of near-term economic dislocations) and then finding out climate change is a false alarm.I guess your answer depends on whether you care more about yourself or your grandkids.