Engineer Checklists and Learning from Apollo

engineer checklists

Recently, I discussed the five management lessons that we can learn from the Apollo lunar landing in 1969. Continuing on this theme, an article in The Chemical Engineer, “Houston-We have a checklist” a UK magazine that I write for, had an interesting take on the lunar landing and engineer checklists.  I was intrigued, of course, as I periodically invoke Sherlock Holmes and the benefits of checklists for testing, analysis, etc.   

The magazine article, written by Mark Yates, looks at the checklists used both at Mission Control and in space. He takes us through the Apollo missions where there could be two spacecraft both operating remotely 240,000 miles from Earth and out of communications contact with Earth for significant periods of time.

Checklists and cue cards covered everything from mission rules, abort criteria, emergency procedures and activation of backup systems in the event of a total failure of a primary control system for example. These checklists and procedures went everywhere. In fact, each Moon-walking astronaut would have a book of procedures strapped to his left wrist that he could follow out on the lunar surface.

In fact, all of the Apollo crews would each log over 100 hours familiarizing themselves with the numerous procedures and checklists. Apollo 11’s Command Module Pilot Michael Collins called them the “fourth crew member.” These checklists were also one of the first examples of digital computers and man being able to operate together seamlessly.  One of the actual checklists used by the Apollo 11 crew is shown below:

Chemical Engineering Checklists

How do we use checklists in chemical engineering?  We have many uses for them. For example, if you visit an earlier blog, you’ll find checklists and application details for filtration testing.  

For AVA mixer and dryer testing, we use the following checklists:

  1. Measure bulk density
  2. Measure moisture content
  3. Measure wet cake 
  4. Make sure to ground the dryer for electrostatic charges
  5. Measure RPM
  6. Record jacket temperature and product temperature
  7. Measure vapor stream 
  8. Measure vacuum level
  9. Measure dry cake and drying time to develop drying curves 

The Apollo missions were 50 years ago, but checklists are still critical for safe and efficient operations. Whether you’re an astronaut or an engineer!

Moonshot & Management Lessons   

Management lessons

2019 is the 50th anniversary of the Miracle Mets World Series-winning season, Joe Namath and the New York Jets taking the Super Bowl title, and the New York Knicks’ NBA Championship win with Bill Bradley. 1969 was quite a time for me as I was growing up a sports fan in Brooklyn. But now that I’m older, I find I’m more drawn to the management lessons we can glean from something else that happened in 1969 — Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins landing on the moon.  

In July, a Businessweek story presented five management lessons we can learn from the “Moonshot.” Although many of us remember the key moments, the history covered at the start of the article is interesting for the controversies we may have forgotten. Nevertheless, the bigger appeal for me is in what we can learn from the Apollo Moon Landing.

Have a clear objective. Author Peter Coy tells us, “President John F. Kennedy vastly simplified NASA’s job with his May 25, 1961, address to Congress committing to ‘the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.’” That singular focus helped “NASA engineers [to keep] their heads down and their slide rules busy.” 

It’s the same in our work environments. If the project has a clear objective from the outset, the operating company, engineering company and vendor teams can all work together to accomplish the project from a technical and budget point of view.

Harness incongruence.  NASA had several setbacks with the moon launch. But, as in all science, we learn from our mistakes. We must look at the problem from all angles and, as we know from Sherlock Holmes, it’s important to recognize: 

  • There is no benefit in jumping to conclusions.
  • Working with others to recreate events can be beneficial.
  • The need for problem-solving skills such as occasional silence or distancing and learning to discern the crucial from the incidental.

Delegate but decide.  This is the essence of leadership. NASA spent over 90% of its budget on sub-contractors. Many of our projects are the same. You need to know when you need help. Then, the project team must have a strong leadership team in place to make the hard decisions, especially when teams are scattered across the world, have different cultures and languages, etc.  

Effectiveness over elegance.  This is my favorite lesson. I’ve seen its truth often, especially when it comes to the PLC controls on a project. There is always the next best instrument, controller, valve, actuator, human-machine interface, etc. Every engineer wants that his or her project to incorporate the newest solutions, but sometimes a simpler control will allow the operators to manage the process more efficiently. Whether you go for effective or elegant, remember to involve the entire team to make the process safe and understandable.  

Improvise. Coy shares many examples of how NASA and the astronauts improvised solutions.  We have all heard the phrase, “Hello Houston, we have a problem.” On our projects, we need listen to all team members to find the correct solution. Maybe we’ll improvise something that is a little beyond what we know; but this is how technology improves.

It’s amazing to think all of this was 50 years ago but these management lessons still hold true today! Now, if someone wants to share their thoughts on what we can learn from the Mets, Jets, and Knicks’ managers, I’d be happy to walk down that memory lane too!