Engineers do not like to spotlight their mistakes, said Wanda Austin, president and chief executive officer of the Aerospace Corpora-ion. They like to retain “an aura of infallibility and maybe even a little magic.” But systems engineering in aerospace is hard, she said. It is rewarding but unforgiving—in aerospace, “success isn’t just expected, it is absolutely required.”
In the 1990s the aerospace industry experienced six launch failures, representing a considerable loss of assets. “It was a very difficult time for all of us in the industry. We were facing real adversity and were in need of real solutions.”
Every one of these launch failures led to significant learning and lasting improvements, said Austin. “We took a good hard look at ourselves and improved our infrastructure, our efficiency, and our processes. As a result, we have benefited from an unprecedented stream of launch successes.” Since 1999, 96 consecutive successful launches have taken place, including two from Cape Canaveral just four days apart the month before the forum.
Since 2000, the aerospace industry and government have reinvigorated all of the primary mission areas, including communications, navigation, and space-based sensors, and launched whole new constellations of satellites. Earth-observing facilities have provided huge quantities of new data about the planet on which we live. The Cassini Saturn Orbiter, the moon-mapping Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution orbiter are providing fascinating information about the solar system. The Mars Curiosity Rover is studying the composition and climate of Earth’s most intriguing planetary neighbor.
The aerospace industry has “been able to take the lessons we learned in the 1990s and apply them to mission success today,” said Austin. “Challenging circumstances, when approached correctly, can be a tremendous catalyst for innovation.”
THE POWER OF COLLABORATION
New ideas and technologies are not usually developed in isolation, Austin noted. Collaboration among government, universities, and companies has been at the core of progress in the aerospace industry.
For example, the Aerospace Corporation has been working for several years with SpaceX, one of the participants in the growing commercial space sector, on the company’s effort to become certified for US Air Force missions. Another example involves science-based collaborations on the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which is being developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and NASA. TESS is a space telescope designed to locate and observe the most promising earth-like planets in the sky, after which high-powered telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope will characterize and evaluate their composition. Scheduled to launch in 2017, TESS “may very well be the piece of technology that discovers extraterrestrial life in our universe,” said Austin.
A final example of seemingly more modest achievements in space that are still deeply critical to innovation involve what are known as CubeSats or Picosats—small orbital devices that are the product of more than 20 years of research, development, and testing. CubeSats can now perform such functions as propulsion, imaging, sensing, and attitude control. And they are invaluable educational tools, offering new perspectives on space and space flight for everyone from elected officials to young children. In response to a question about the hazards of orbital debris, Austin also noted that CubeSats are being designed for reentry so that they will not interfere with the operations of future satellites.
NEW BUSINESSES IN SPACE
Small satellites are “changing the face of space business,” said Austin, by allowing new companies into the commercial sector. Shortly before the forum, Google announced that it planned to pay $500 million to acquire Sky Imaging, a company that uses small, low-cost satellites to take high-resolution images and video of Earth. Other companies, such as Planet
Labs, are creating a tremendous amount of excitement among investors and venture capitalists. Today, commercial as well as governmental investments are creating opportunities, and companies are figuring out ways to create new businesses in space. “The business potential for small satellites is anything but small,” said Austin.
Advances in space technology also create new opportunities for cutting-edge developments on Earth. For example, an aerospace scientist recently received a patent for laser-scripted bone growth implants, primarily for the spine, based on laser processing techniques. “Our work touches every sector in our society,” said Austin.
SUCCESS FROM ADVERSITY
“To create anything of value, we must not be afraid to fail, to make mistakes, or to change the status quo,” Austin concluded. “It is my experience that challenges can always lead to opportunity.” John Kennedy established the goal of going to the moon not because it was easy but because it was hard. Doing hard things teaches great lessons. Going into space, for example, provides an opportunity to learn about Earth,
about its limited resources, and about the investments that need to be made to protect it.
Teams that never fail probably have missed opportunities, whereas teams that have achieved great success often do so by developing a strategy to learn from failure. As Albert Einstein said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
The aerospace business pushes the boundaries of technology and human invention, said Austin. By confronting and overcoming challenges, it delivers tremendous benefits to humanity.
Drawing Inspiration from Hard Problems
In response to a question, Austin reflected briefly on her own life and career in engineering. “When I grew up in the inner city of New York, there were not a lot of black, female engineer role models. Fortunately, I had two parents who valued education and who never told me I couldn’t do anything I wanted to do. They just told me I had to be willing to work hard.” She also had a seventh grade math teacher who told her that she was good at math and that she should not let anyone tell her otherwise.
By the time Austin got to high school and college, she liked to solve hard problems, so she looked for areas that had hard problems to solve. When she got to graduate school, she had a professor who said, here is a hard problem that needs to be solved. “Voilà. The light bulb went on for me.”
That kind of engagement, especially for girls, is critical, Austin said. She takes every available opportunity to go to schools and talk with students. “You never know what it is that you are going to say that is going to inspire one young person to pursue a career in engineering.”
These students are our future leaders, she said. Whatever they go on to study and do, they need to be at least comfortable with technology and to understand what engineering does for society. “You have to expose them to as much as you can.”