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Space is the final frontier, but it needs 21st century engineering

Michael Louis Morua
11th June 2024

Building up our Digital Engineering capabilities for Space

Space isn’t remote at all. It’s only an hour’s drive away if your car could go straight upwards

Fred Hoyle, British mathematician and astronomer

Onto new frontiers

As with any venture into the unknown, there will be complexities along the way to space. As trailblazers in a new and uncharted land, we will face environments that will be alien to us. We will also encounter complexities as we try to improve things. And we will be on a constant ‘learning curve’, where we will encounter challenges not seen before, and it will seem like things have to get worse before they get better.

But it will be worth the struggle. The benefits of space are not just reputational or scientific. According to McKinsey, the space business is poised to be worth $1.8 trillion by 2035 (accounting for inflation), up from $630 billion in 2023. As the rapid growth of the ‘New Space’ industry shows, we are long past the point where only large nation states and major aerospace contractors stood to benefit from investments in space technology. Space is now a massive commercial opportunity.

That said, the author is of an age that he can recall when space exploration and putting satellites in orbit around the earth was in its infancy. System engineering and project management, as we know them today, were also in their infancy. In fact, these disciplines were developed and refined because of their application in the US space program, which was so huge and complex that it required new and improved planning and engineering methodologies.

Extreme space environments, such as high vacuum, zero gravity, lack of oxygen, extreme temperatures and solar radiation presented engineering challenges for human space travel. But we were also entertained by visions of a future where these challenges had been overcome, like the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and the television show, Star Trek. They provided a vision of space travel and exploration that included the commercialization of space, space-based power and communications, and interplanetary and intergalactic space travel. They also envisioned that spacecraft could be constructed in orbital docking and manufacturing facilities.

Science fiction for now, yes – but is such a future possible? The author believes so, and that we are just at the beginning of this journey.

Current issues in space

Unfortunately, in over 60 years of space activities, we have created some problems along the way. These include the accumulation of space junk (which refers to defunct satellites, spent rocket stages, and other debris orbiting Earth, posing risks to active spacecraft), a reliance on single use solutions (e.g. rocket boosters that, once depleted, are jettisoned into the sea) and today’s considerable dependence on (potentially vulnerable) space-based infrastructure to keep our societies running.

But our space activities have also produced many benefits, like satellite-enabled navigation and communications that provide everything from communication to precise navigation and keeping time on financial market transactions, and human occupied space stations that have provided significant scientific breakthroughs. Engineering methods have also evolved during that time. Due to the complexity of space projects, Model Based Systems Engineering (MBSE) – a digitally enhanced evolution of the system engineering approach that was so key during the Cold War ‘Space Age’ – has become the approach of choice for today’s ’Second Space Age’.

Digital Engineering is now a requirement for success  

Simply put, there are now too many moving parts and too many stakeholders to easily manage with traditional methods. So, out of necessity, both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have supported the use of and developed standards for the common practice of MBSE and Digital Engineering in their supplier and project teams. Sheer project complexity means that working alone or in isolation is not an option on space projects. Instead, early collaboration and sharing of design information is key to success. It reduces integration risks and project costs and will eventually allow us to explore places where no human has dared to travel before.

However, as experience often shows, effective collaboration in a cross supplier and cross project environment is not easy. It requires common (or at least interoperable) tools, standards, and processes. Project sponsors – be they government organizations or private companies – require effective governance and management to steer development and provide direction and agility in changing circumstances.

In many cases, we will require common standards, common and open architectures, and other means of managing commonality to mitigate an exponentially growing complex environment – which is driven by the need for interoperability and co-ordination, plus new business demands, the new information environment and rapid technology growth.

So – is space complex because it is foreign to us or because it forces us to work in new ways? Perhaps both. Welcome to the 21st century.

Upcoming space projects and opportunities

The biggest space activities are yet to come, but their deadlines are drawing closer.

For example, the return to the moon – NASA’s Artemis 3, which is slated for September 2026. With that return will come renewed interest in building the moon as a base to explore other planets, like Mars. This base will likely be built with materials available on the moon, including water and energy that can be harvested. The lunar environment is also harsh. It consists of gravity that is one sixth that of Earth, no atmosphere, high solar radiation, and extreme temperatures (varying hundreds of degrees centigrade between night and day). A lunar base will be an engineering challenge in its own right, and it will require a constellation of satellites to provide communications and overhead surveillance, monitor the moon’s environment and offer geo-location capability.

For other missions and capabilities, the ESA has a variety of projects for space transportation, connectivity, global navigation, and robotics. These include supporting rapid response through space-based communications, expansion of the Galileo navigation constellation and even a spacecraft control center of the future.

These projects will be complex, require international and multiple supplier collaboration, and will need to be delivered to budget and deadlines that achieve business expectations. Suppliers experienced in MBSE and Digital Engineering will excel in this environment. Unprepared suppliers may struggle even to bid successfully – without a way to manage these skills, competencies, and methods over time, it will be difficult to remain relevant, let alone competitive, in the final frontier.

Model Based Systems Engineering and Digital Engineering – what the space agencies want you to know

To this end, space agencies are actively supporting (and even enforcing) the use of MBSE and Digital Engineering. Below are some links to NASA and the ESA’s MBSE guidance on the subject.



New approaches for new frontiers

As we can see, the major space agencies (who are, ultimately, the linchpins and gatekeepers of major space projects) are championing MBSE and Digital Engineering.

Ergo, we must harness and manage these disciplines within our businesses – not just because we want to work with these agencies – but so that, in the new frontier, we can be more than participants, but influencers. This will only be done through improved digital engineering management following a properly executed transformation to these new ways of working.

And with the space sector’s massive growth in commercial opportunities continuing to expand, now is the time to start. The opportunities are out there – are you ready for the future you want?

Look at how you are managing your MBSE and Digital Engineering programs.  Are they ready for Space and the Final Frontier?


Michael Louis Morua

ER&D Senior Systems Engineer, CEng CSEP and PMP
Mike graduated from the University of California Berkeley (BSEE) and later the US Navy Postgraduate School (MSEE). He was a US Naval officer and later a systems engineer. Mike specializes in Systems of Systems, systems thinking, MBSE in defense rail, and infrastructure projects. He now resides in Britain, and is a member of IEEE, IET, INCOSE and PMI.