Engineers get insufficient credit for NASA' Perseverance Mars landing

Perseverance views of Mars. (NASA)

Perseverance views of Mars. (NASA)

Once again, reporters and commentators are displaying their ignorance by praising the spectacular success of NASA’s Perseverance Mars landing as a “great scientific achievement.”

Not to diminish the importance of the feat in the realm of science, it was a far greater achievement in engineering. Once again, engineering is taking a back seat to the improperly used catchall category of “science.”

There are just too many examples of this sort of mindlessness. A few are here and here. President Joe Biden did his part by his non-inclusive use of “the power of science” in his congratulatory message to NASA.


This a more accurate description of the overarching role of engineering in the Perseverance success: “What it takes to get a job building robotic Mars explorers for NASA.” Just for a start, how do you shoot a vehicle into space to a target millions of miles away and make if land remotely on a spot the size of a garage? Mind boggling.

This disrespect is nothing new. To say engineering achievements are overlooked is a vast understatement. Praise is almost exclusively hurled at architects for new and startling forms of buildings, but structural engineers keep them from otherwise collapsing. E

ngineers make planes fly and spaceships soar. Packaging engineers make all those Fed Ex deliveries possible. Engineers massage medical science  discoveries into practical equipment that saves lives. Engineers designed this computer I’m writing this on. Petroleum engineers refine crude oil into less polluting and more efficient fuel and into millions of consumer products.  If that doesn’t please you, without engineers, there’d be no alternative energy sources like solar panels and windmills.

In a continuing and endless insult, Nobel Prizes are handed out copiously to the sciences (including, good lord, for economics), but not for engineering. In supreme irony, the prize’s creator, Alfred Nobel, was an engineer. Consequently, engineers had to create their own prestigious equivalent, the Draper Prize with its $500,000 award. 

The 2020 award went to Jean Fréchet and C. Grant Willson “for the invention, development, and commercialization of chemically amplified materials for micro- and nanofabrication, enabling the extreme miniaturization of microelectronic devices.” In other words, thank them for the smart phone or other device on which you are reading this.

The National Academy of Engineering lists just a few of the recent, noteworthy achievements: COVID-19 severity detector; a wildfire detector; a COVID-19 home test, and, honestly, a fake news filter.

Passing without notice in Chicago was a local winner of the prize some years ago, Vladimir Haensel, who, while at the Des Plaines-based UOP Inc., invented the platinum catalytic process for reforming petroleum into gasoline.

I hope Engineering Is Not Science helps explain it:

Engineers are not a sub-category of scientists. So often the two terms are used interchangeably, but they are separate, albeit related, disciplines. Scientists explore the natural world and show us how and why it is as it is. Discovery is the essence of science. Engineers innovate solutions to real-world challenges in society. While it is true that engineering without science could be haphazard; without engineering, scientific discovery would be a merely an academic pursuit.

Thank you, engineers, for all that you do. 

My historical novel: Madness: The War of 1812

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  • Engineering is nothing but applied science, Dennis. Engineering is nothing without mathematics, chemistry, and physics. In other words, without 'science'.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    I wish to note in 1776 Engineer/Inventor James Watt created the STEAM ENGINE. It took many decades later for the 'Science' of Thermodynamics to explain to operations.

    As engineers, we were going to be in a position to change the world - not just study it.
    Henry Petroski

    Scientists dream about doing great things. Engineers do them.
    James A. Michener

    “Science can amuse and fascinate us all, but it is engineering that changes the world.”
    —Isaac Asimov, American writer, professor of biochemistry

    The story of civilization is, in a sense, the story of engineering—that long and arduous struggle to make the forces of nature work for man's good.
    — Lyon Sprague DeCamp

  • Thank you your this commentary. I wish to note February 21-27, 2021 is 'ENGINEERS WEEK', a celebration of engineering and various programs to interest Children-Students in engineering careers. Did you read/see/hear any news of this annual event? There are several programs in Chicago: To learn more of what engineers do check:
    Offered by "EngineerGuySE"

    We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology (let me add ENGINEERING) . - Carl Sagan

  • James Watt was a scientist and an engineer. These two identities are inextricable. Throughout his long and productive life, Watt never separated them. He had close friendships with prominent contemporary scientist like Joseph Black who may have discussed with him the scientific concept of latent heat which may have helped Watt to further improve his inchoate steam engine. Later in life, James Watt became a member of the Royal Society of Science. Yes, science. You see, my friend, science includes theory and its application, which we call engineering.

  • I love the quotes you cite. But not of them disprove my point. Once again, engineering is the practical side of science. A surgeon, in a way, is like an engineer of the science of medicine.

    When James Michener says scientists dream about doing great things, he did not mean engineers don't. He was just recognizing engineering to be a subset of science, the practical component.

    Isaac Asimov has always been one of my favorites. Have you read any of his popularizations of science that are among his hundreds of books? His quote only emphasizes, I think, the practical (engineering) value of science above and beyond the pleasure of learning about its ideas and methods.

    Your last quote implies that science first grapples with understanding the "forces of nature", that is, the natural laws, such as gravity,, before applying them to inventions that "work for man's good."

    Thanks again, for the quotes. They're excellent.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    "not of them" should be "none of them"

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Hmm. That must be why so many engineers have been awarded so many Nobel Prizes for physics, medicine or chemistry.

  • In reply to Dennis Byrne:

    There is no Noble Prize for engineers. But a number of scientists who were engineers have won Nobel Prizes in chemistry and physics, e.g. Marconi.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    I said in the post that there is no Noble Prize for engineers. That you felt compelled to point that out to me indicates that you didn't read the post thoroughly.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Aquinas: First, my resume: I have worked as an engineer for the last 30 years. Much of my experience developing brand new software technology which passed FDA regulation and is now being used around the globe to diagnose balance related issues. I worked directly with the scientists who performed the research in order to take their research and turn it into marketable technology. I am most proud of my development of a biofeedback monitor used in conjunction with Vestibular Evoked Myogenic Potential testing.

    To state that an engineer is subtype of scientist demonstrates that you have never worked as an engineer nor scientist. I appreciate what you are trying to say, but I am coming from a place of 30 years experience.

  • Suggested reading:

    U of I Inventor, Bypassed For Nobel, To Share Draper Prize

  • In reply to rbengrguy:

    What is your point?

  • Dennis, this is a great article,, and it is kind of you to print this. I have worked for 30 years as an engineer and have had the privilege of working at some great companies and developing some awesome tech over the years.

    Speaking only for myself, though, I have never found many engineers to be the kind of people who need congratulations. We know what we do is pretty awesome. That knowledge and a good paycheck are often enough.

  • In reply to Rick Bohning:

    You have to remember that this isn't about lamenting the lack of respect that Engineers get. This is about Dennis being able to take a shot at Joe Biden. This is what Biden said:

    > Today proved once again that with the power of Science and American ingenuity...

    This is what Dennis wrote:

    > President Joe Biden did his part by his non-inclusive use of "the power of science"

    As someone with two engineering degrees and many friends still working in industry, there are no engineers complaining about what Biden said. Everything you read here is political nonsense.

  • In reply to dave77:

    You're right. I should not taken a shot at Biden. The shot belongs to his speechwriters who didn't know the difference, since the only thing that Biden knows is what he's fed to say. " engineers?" You know and can speak for each and every one?

  • In reply to Dennis Byrne:

    In this case, yes, I can speak for every single one of them. The baseline for intelligence set by the difficulty of getting an engineering degree precludes any of them from having your point of view.

  • In reply to dave77:

    I know engineers whom you don't speak. Will you cancel them?

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