Spacecraft Engineering, unlike any other form of engineering, is one which is most effectively practiced with a knowledge of Systems Engineering. The objects that humans have sent beyond the bounds of Earth’s gravity are the most complicated pieces of engineering ever dreamt up, designed, developed, built, and flown. These objects have carried people to the Moon and allow mankind to carry out science experiments above the Earth and on other planets. And a deep understanding of how that whole spacecraft works, an understanding of the Spacecraft Systems Engineering that went into the project, is key to the success of each and every space mission.
Systems Engineering as a discipline has been around for nearly a century, and over that time period it has evolved to meet the needs of not only the times, but the systems and the organizations designing the systems. Each company will have their own method of Systems Engineering, but the discipline itself holds many key elements that cross organizational boundaries and are common throughout engineering industries. But most organizations rely on the Systems Engineers to oversee just that – Systems Engineering. They do not depend on each engineer to understand the System as a whole in order to make it work, instead counting on each engineer to understand the intricate details of their part of the product, which will be put together with each other part to create the whole. This focused approach to engineering works for the majority of projects, but it is not the most effective way to carry out the engineering of a spacecraft project.
An electrical engineer working on the wiring harness of a satellite who gets so focused on that one aspect – as vital as it is – loses sight of the program as a whole, and the program suffers. That electrical engineer does not fully understand how their components supply power to the whole spacecraft – the propulsion system that maneuvers the craft, the computer that is the brains, the attitude system that keeps it aligned, and all of the other countless systems and subsystems that make up these marvelous engineering creations that take mankind’s dreams from the Earth to the stars. And the same goes for every other engineer working on the project: a failure to understand how each components is intricately related to each and every other component through a careful understanding of Systems Engineering and an application of those principles to the program, results in an inferior product delivery, and one that may be doomed to failure.
While there is no need to study Systems Engineering as a discipline, it is key for any engineer working on a Spacecraft Program to have a basic understanding of some of the key tenants of Systems Engineering. There is adequate information online for learning about the basics of Systems Engineering and how they apply to an engineering program. However, it is more important to have an understanding of each of the engineering disciplines that go into the design of a spacecraft, and how Systems Engineering applies to putting everything together to develop a finished flight article. By understanding how each system and subsystem is related to the others, it is possible to understand how a single engineer’s work impacts the design of the whole spacecraft. And the principles of Systems Engineering will assist with this insight.
Spacecraft have allowed mankind to realize their dreams of reaching for the stars. The opportunity to work on a spacecraft, at any phase, is a dream come true for many an engineer. By better understanding the complete Spacecraft System, those engineers will be better equipped to contribute to the engineering process, and see their dreams take flight.