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The High Ground in Space

A growing industry poses myriad challenges for tomorrow's systems engineers

September 29, 2008 — Making sure that the right people and processes are aligned for the critical demands of the aerospace industry in the 21st century is a human capital issue of overwhelming complexity, but one that Wanda Austin, president and chief executive officer of The Aerospace Corporation, believes tomorrow’s systems engineers will be able to address with creativity and vision.
L-R: Prof. Berok Khoshnevis (Dr. Austin's PhD advisor), who is director of the Viterbi School program in manufacturing engineering; Dean Yannis Yortsos; Wanda Austin, president and CEO, The Aerospace Corporation; Austin's husband, Wade; Prof. Stan Settles, director, program in systems architecting and engineering; Marilee Wheaton, adjunct associate professor of industrial and systems engineering in the Epstein Department and general manager of the Systems Engineering Division, Aerospace Corporation; and Prof. James E Moore, II, chair of the Epstein Department.

Austin, internationally recognized for her work in satellite and payload system acquisition, systems engineering and system simulation, was the keynote speaker Sept. 25, 2008, at the second annual Rechtin Keynote Lecture, hosted by the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. The annual keynote lecture celebrates the legacy of the late Eberhardt Rechtin, Viterbi School professor, National Academy of Engineering member, and a founding father of systems architecting and engineering.

In her talk, entitled “The Human Factor: Managing Technical Complexity and Creativity in the 21st Century," Austin turned to one of the areas that most concerned Professor Rechtin: attracting the best and brightest minds to the aerospace industry and helping them grow and develop into the finest systems engineers in the world.

As Rechtin once wrote, the aerospace business truly flourishes when it is populated by “creative individuals capable of understanding and resolving problems of almost overwhelming complexity.”  The human capital issue that Rechtin grappled with is even more critical today as aerospace companies attempt to build workforces that can meet the myriad challenges of the 21st century.

“When you look back in history, you find that systems engineers have always played a role in shaping the contours and destiny of every society. From the pyramids of Egypt to the aqueducts of Rome to the big naval cruisers of World War II to the rockets and satellites of the past half century, these hybrid professionals, part artists, part scientists, truly stand out,” Austin said.  But students belonging to Generation Y, the major suppliers of tomorrow’s systems engineers, are, in many ways, the embodiment of Rechtin’s vision and values.
Wanda Austin talking to Prof. Emeritus and fellow NAE member Gerry Nadler, past Epstein Department chair, who issued the department's invitation to Austin to deliver the second annual Rechtin Lecture.
“Many systems engineering students at the Viterbi School, and others like them, are well-suited to become top tier systems engineers,” Austin said. “Gen Y…is technologically savvy, service-oriented and hungry for expansive growth opportunities. This up-and-coming group embodies vision, values, imagination and integrity, which are the prerequisites for systems engineering innovation today.”

Austin discussed the importance of space to the national economy and the American way of life.

“A billion households consult weather forecasts every day.  A full one-third of our GDP (gross domestic product) is weather-centric; look at agriculture, infrastructure and energy.  Satellite search and rescue has saved over 18,000 lives worldwide since 1982….Remote-sensing has revolutionized farming. Communications, exploration, navigation are all reliant on our space capabilities. Our homeland security is also dependent on space.”

But as space becomes increasingly populated with communications, weather, navigation and reconnaissance space systems, the industry is shifting its approach to developing and managing satellite systems.  Programs of the past with a singular, mission-specific goal, such as the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs, are being reinvented as “system-of-systems” programs involving architectural development all the way through to system operation.  

Austin cited one example under development at The Aerospace Corporation, called “Operational Response to Space,” which would give the U.S. a capability to rapidly deploy in a structured and organized fashion a limited number of payloads on a very short timeline. In developing these systems, she said, a variety of challenges arise: What technologies will make this possible? What type of satellite design would be required? What kind of operational capabilities would be necessary? How would one incorporate a new capability seamlessly into an existing architecture? How could the development phase be shortened? What would the flight termination system and network connectivity look like?
Prof. Berok Khoshnevis talks with Eberhardt Rechtin's wife, 'Dee Dee' Rechtin.

“Fifteen years ago we started building space systems and it was all about the satellite,” Austin said.  “Today, when we talk about space systems, it’s just another node in a larger system, so we really have to think about how we integrate them and manage them.  It’s very different.  And we don’t have overarching responsive space architecture right now, in fact, we have many architectures that have evolved…but most of them are mission-specific and they are not going to converge naturally.”   

Systems engineers of tomorrow will face an enormous challenge in finding new ways to minimize cost and enhance system reliability, development times and system performance in new space systems.

“As systems engineers, I feel strongly that we have an obligation to help exploit space for the betterment of humankind….I know that we can discover new ways to preserve the Earth by being in space; managing space debris, for instance, helps us protect our assets in the sky and on the ground below,” she said.  

“As we become more aware of the importance of greening our planet, space has the potential to provide new opportunities for solutions, such as solar power,” she continued.  “Advanced technology can also help us obtain a better understanding of weather, secure our borders, develop a seamless global air transportation system, protect cyberspace and keep our air space safe, all of which are critical to our well-being.”

About Wanda Austin
Wanda Austin succeeded William F. Ballhaus Jr. as president and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation upon his retirement on January 1, 2008. She served previously as the senior vice president of The Aerospace Corporation's National Systems Group in Chantilly, Va. She has been with the company since 1979.  She was hired by Eberhardt Rechtin,who subsequently encouraged her to attend USC for her doctoral studies, and served in positions of increasing responsibility, including general manager of the MILSATCOM (Military Satellite Communications) Division and senior vice president of the Engineering and Technology Group.
Wanda Austin, center, talks with undergraduate students in a Meet and Greet session before the Rechtin Lecture. Among those she met were Portia Peters (materials science major) and Torey Raphael (aerospace major) on the right, and Gavin Yates (ISE major) and Daniel Seal (mechanical engineering major who interned at The Aerospace Corporation) on the left.

She earned a bachelor of arts degree in mathematics from Franklin and Marshall College, masters of science degrees in both mathematics and systems engineering from the University of Pittsburgh, and a PhD in industrial and systems engineering from the University of Southern California in 1988 under the guidance of Prof. Berok Khoshnevis.  She was appointed research professor of industrial and systems engineering in 2008.

Among her many awards and citations, Austin received the Air Force Scroll of Achievement, the National Reconnaissance Office Gold Medal, the U.S. Air Force Meritorious Civilian Service Medal, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center's Martin Luther King Spirit of the Dream Award, the Society of Women Engineers Upward Mobility Award, and the Women in Aerospace Outstanding Achievement Award.

In addition to her NAE membership, Austin is a member of the NASA Advisory Council, a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), and a member of the Viterbi School Board of Councilors.

About the Rechtin Lecture
Eberhardt Rechtin was a former Viterbi School professor, National Academy of Engineering member, and founding father of systems architecting and engineering as a distinct discipline.  He played a key role in the development of U.S. space technologies and had a storied career in government and industry before coming to USC.
Eberhardt Rechtin

Rechtin headed JPL’s Communications Group in the 1960s, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (later to become DARPA) soon after, and was named CEO of the Aerospace Corporation in 1977. He joined USC as a professor of systems engineering in 1987.   

Click here to view a webcast replay of the lecture (note Windows Media Player required)