Wanda M. Austin
President, Chief Executive Officer, Aerospace Corp.
Wanda Austin wants the focus to be on her qualifications and mission, but it’s next to impossible to overlook the fact that she’s not only the first African American but also the first woman to lead the Aerospace Corp., the U.S. military’s space-engineering brain trust.
This is, after all, the aerospace industry, whose senior management ranks are dominated by middle-aged white males; so much so that former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin famously once described his agency’s work force as too pale, too male and too stale.
Many would argue that diversity is important, but when it comes to ensuring the success of critical national security space missions, capability reigns supreme. This, her colleagues say, is why Austin was selected this past January to succeed William Ballhaus as chief executive of the not-for-profit, federally funded research and development center, which was established in 1960 to provide independent engineering advice on U.S. military space programs. “Her capabilities override any considerations of gender or race,” said one.
Austin joined Aerospace in 1979 and rose steadily through the ranks, most recently serving as senior vice president of the company’s National Systems Group, which supports the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). About 90 percent of the company’s work is split between the U.S. Air Force and the NRO, she says.
Like many of her associates, Austin says it is important to attract young talent to the space industry and considers that among her responsibilities.
Austin spoke recently with Space News staff writer Jeremy Singer.
What are some of the mission areas that are growing in importance for Aerospace Corp.?
The key issues that we’re working on more often today include cyberspace information assurance. Everyone is struggling with cyberspace and information assurance, and our enterprise is no different.
Some of the other areas of growing importance include space protection and space situational awareness. We want to make sure we are providing trusted information from our space assets, and that’s becoming more and more of a challenge.
Would enemies aim a cyber attack at a satellite ground station or the spacecraft itself?
Yes and yes. Ground systems have a vulnerability – even business systems. If your systems are attached to the Internet, people can access your data systems and perturb the information that you are providing, so you run the risk of not having assured data, and that’s a key part of our business. There is also the risk that satellites could be built with counterfeit parts that are of poor quality and could make the systems and their data less reliable.
Are counterfeit parts a growing problem for the space industry?
Yes. In some cases, they can be poor-quality duplicates of satellite components. In other cases, they may be parts that we had rejected that have been resold as “Class A” parts. They are very hard to detect, and one faulty part can result in mission failure.
Senior Air Force leaders have long sought relief from the hiring caps that limit their ability to utilize Aerospace Corp. personnel.
Has there been any recent progress in this area?
No. We’re not able to currently provide the level of support to all of our customers that they would like due to the hiring ceilings on all federally funded research and development centers.
Are there any new developments with your support to the NRO?
The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center traditionally has relied on us for independent assessments as well as support from Aerospace personnel embedded in program offices. The NRO has generally relied on Aerospace for the latter, but recently began using us more for an objective voice to provide independent assessments to the director, as well as watch lists for technical issues that we have identified.
While Aerospace can provide valuable support to offices where they work alongside NRO program officials, doing so exclusively can sacrifice the independent technical assessments we provide that spot issues that might not otherwise bubble up through the chain.
What is your reaction to the recent firing of the Air Force’s top two officials due to issues
related to the handling of nuclear weapons?
The shift in leadership will change priorities, and Aerospace will respond. I expect to see a continued focus on mission success and making sure we’re doing the right things.
We don’t support the ICBM business, but if you go back to the launch failures of the 1990s, this is reminiscent of some of the deficiencies that we found – that there were processes that we knew and understood but failed to follow. So there may be an effort to re-emphasize accountability for mission assurance in the ICBM world, similar to what happened with launch.
What role has Aerospace played in implementing the Air Force’s back-to-basics approach to space system development?
Aerospace plays a key role in back to basics as we help define and share the gold standard for mission assurance. We’ve developed guidebooks for the government and contractors. It’s not just a matter of swinging the pendulum back, but looking at the no-kidding things that need to be done to ensure mission success, and pass those lessons on to ensure we don’t repeat the failures of the past.
One of the things that we have done in this area is conduct a mission assurance workshop from May 12-13 outside Denver to talk about changes in command media to ensure that lessons learned are incorporated into tomorrow’s systems.
Command media is material that the contractor uses to define processes. Years ago, when there was direction for contractors to use commercial practices, each contractor was allowed to define them by the processes that they used, and they didn’t all match. When the government tried to figure if it was getting what it needed, it was hard to compare.
Can you give an example of what Aerospace is doing to improve the reliability of Air Force satellites?
The first Wideband Global Satcom spacecraft, which was launched in October and went into operational mode [in May], is an example of a program that was developed under the acquisition reform era.
As that program proceeded, there was a realization that we needed to get back to basics, so Aerospace Corp. used a mission assurance framework to study the new aspects of performance from the vehicle, and looked at the steps that would be necessary to ensure success on orbit.
The mission assurance framework is an extension of the approach we have used that has helped bring success in the launch arena with the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. We’ve extended it to satellite systems like GPS 3, the Transformational Satellite Communications System and the Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications system to better understand where to apply resources and where we have to reduce risk.
What are you doing to help attract the next generation of space workers?
We need to get the message out about what a wonderful career the aerospace industry offers, and expose young people to the significant contribution that they can make to this nation.
I spent this past weekend doing a commencement address on Friday at California State University, Los Angeles, and then spoke to students on Saturday night at a recognition dinner for the African-American Male Achiever’s Network, a science and technology magnet program for minority elementary and high school students. They’re excited; they want to know what they can do to pursue a career in aerospace.
How do you capture that excitement so they actually pursue careers in aerospace?
First we need to ensure that they get a quality math and science education. They need to start off with that solid foundation. We need to get them involved with experiential learning, get scientists and engineers into their schools to get them engaged. We also need to make it clear to college students that what they are learning in school can be applied to our industry. Looking at our national security space challenges, it’s important that we ensure that we get the best and brightest to help us focus on innovative solutions.
Aerospace Corp. opened a new office in Huntsville, Ala., in late February. What organization is it intended to support?
We opened that office because the Missile Defense Agency shifted its operations to the area, but we have supported NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in the past and could provide additional support in the future.