Software Engineering Lessons from NASA: Part One

Long before I became a programmer, I worked as an optical engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. I was part of the Optical Alignment and Test group, which is responsible for the integration and testing of science instruments for spacecraft like the Hubble Space Telescope, Swift, and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.

While most of the day-to-day engineering practices I learned didn’t transfer over to software engineering, I’ve found certain principles still hold true. Here’s the first one:

The first version you build will be wrong.

At NASA, it was taken as axiomatic that the first time you built an instrument, you’d screw it up. Engineers always pressed for the budget to build an Engineering Test Unit (ETU), which was a fully-working mock-up of the instrument you ultimately wanted to launch. Since the ETU was thrown away afterward, you could use it to practice the techniques you’d use to assemble the real instrument.

And you needed the practice. The requirements were often so tight (to the thousandth of an inch) that no matter how well you’d planned it out, something always went wrong: a screw would prove too hard to reach, or a baffle would be too thin to block all the light.

No amount of planning and peer review could find all the problems. The only way to know for sure if it would work was to build it. By building an ETU, you could shake out all the potential flaws in the design, so the final instrument would be solid.

In software, I’ve found the same principle holds: the first time I solve I problem, it’s never the optimal solution. Oddly enough, I often can’t see the optimal solution until after I’ve solved the problem in some other way.

Knowing this, I treat the first solution as a learning experience, to be returned to down the line and further optimized. I still shoot for the best first solution I can get, but I don’t beat myself up when I look back at the finished product and see the flaws in my design.