How to Do the Impossible

Lessons learned from rocket scientists can solve seemingly insurmountable challenges.

By Devon Frye, published April 29, 2020 - last reviewed on May 5, 2020

NASA, Gary Waters/ Ikon images
NASA, Gary Waters/ Ikon images

The astrophysicists and engineers known colloquially as “rocket scientists” have accomplished much that was once unimaginable, from flying men to the moon to exploring Mars. How do they tackle problems straight out of science fiction? In his book Think Like a Rocket Scientist, former rocket scientist Ozan Varol highlights some of their innovative problem-solving approaches—and you don’t have to work at NASA to use them.

Back From the Future

Rocket scientists dream big, but starry-eyed ideas alone aren’t enough. To make moonshots materialize, they use backcasting, a strategy that envisions an ideal outcome and works backward, plotting each step needed to make it happen. “You dream big—but then you sketch out a roadmap to achieving that dream,” Varol says. Merely fantasizing that you have your dream job, for instance, won’t get you hired; backcasting means identifying the training, experience, and networking that propelled you there, so you can assemble the pieces in real life.

What Could Go Wrong?

Astronauts put their lives on the line to go to space. To minimize risk, the engineers utilize premortems; they imagine a mission has failed and ask what went wrong. Anyone considering a risky venture—starting a business, for example—can use premortems to identify obstacles that might arise. In established organizations, premortems provide opportunities for dissent, Varol adds. “People are often reluctant to be the skunk at the picnic. Premortems create psychologically safe environments to point out potential weaknesses.”

Assume Nothing

When embarking on a new project, rocket scientists attempt to identify every assumption they have and systematically question whether each can be trusted—this is called first-principles thinking. If you’ve been working to solve a problem but haven’t succeeded, identify your routine actions and thoughts and ask yourself why you’re doing them. Says Varol: “The habits that clutter our thinking are often lurking in plain sight.”