Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why is NASA sponsoring the teaching of systems engineering at the university level?
The Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) established the Constellation Program Office (CxPO) at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) with the focus on managing the numerous development projects to enable NASA to go to the moon, Mars and beyond. The primary responsibility of this new program is to perform the systems engineering on the numerous systems under development - from today and for decades to come. Given this challenge, NASA senior management has initiated a call to grow systems engineers for NASA's exploration future.

2. Can undergraduates really appreciate and apply systems engineering concepts? Isn’t SE usually part of on-the-job-training in the aerospace industry?
Today’s undergraduate engineering student is exposed to numerous opportunities that enable them to resonate with systems engineering concepts. For example, most of the aerospace engineering students at UT-Austin have industry co-op or internship experience, as well as hands-on design projects such as building nano-satellites or unmanned aerial vehicles.

3. Do these systems engineering materials need to be taught as a single course?
No. The course is structured in modules, such that a particular topic module can be pulled for inclusion in another class, thus allowing an easier opportunity for export. Furthermore, the modular structure allows for reordering of the topics per the instructor’s preference. Given this approach, modules can also be added or deleted based on topic interest. In fact, there are a number of topics worthy of inclusion in future versions of this course, including software systems engineering, human factors, design for supportability and maintainability, and six-sigma quality methodology.

4. What are the systems engineering course materials based on?
The SE Course content is based on numerous systems engineering handbooks and primers from NASA and the Department of Defense organizations (See section on reference documents). The content also reflects material from professional training courses offered at NASA and through organizations such as Project Performance International. The lectures also rely on the NASA experience base and documents to provide examples for systems engineering topics. In particular the James Webb Space Telescope project and the Constellation program are used as sources for example documentation on topics such as requirements, technology development, and project life cycle. The SE Course does not require a particular systems engineering textbook, although many are available to supplement the course if desired.

5. Have these materials been reviewed/audited by ABET?
The Space Systems Engineering Course is currently being taught at The University of Texas at Austin. The course will be part of the ABET audit scheduled in 2010 for the Department of Aerospace Engineering. The course contributes to the following ABET EC 2000 Criterion 3 outcomes (see table below). These outcomes are validated by mapping specific assignments and exam questions to the specified outcomes.

In particular, outcomes (a) and (e) are achieved by solving reliability problems and failure modes effects analysis, as well as performing Monte Carlo simulations on cost estimations. Note that outcome (c) is not selected since that outcome is the purview of the senior design class for which the Space Systems Engineering Course is a prerequisite. The SE course does not require students to design a system, but rather become familiar with the various tools and techniques to apply to the design process. Outcome (d) is achieved by tailoring certain assignments for group participation. Outcome (f) is addressed by a class lecture and accompanying assignment dedicated to ethics, in particular using case studies developed by the Texas Space Grant Consortium. Since this course is designed to meet a university requirement for a writing component, many of the assignments and the final project involve written communication, thus addressing outcome (g). To achieve outcome (j), the course relies heavily on current NASA missions and associated issues. Most of the systems engineering examples are derived from missions currently in development or recently launched. Finally, outcome (k) is achieved by teaching students various systems engineering tools, such as analytical hierarchy process, Taguchi method, and cost estimation models.

ABET Outcomes for Systems Engineering Course





a. An ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering


g. An ability to communicate effectively


b. An ability to design and conduct experiments, as well as to analyze and interpret data


h. the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, environmental, and societal context.


c. an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs within realistic constraints such as economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety, manufacturability, and sustainability.


i. A recognition of the need for and an ability to engage in life-long learning


d. An ability to function on multi-disciplinary teams


j. A knowledge of contemporary issues


e. An ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems


k. An ability to use the techniques, skills, and modern engineering tools necessary for engineering practice


f. An understanding of professional and ethical responsibility




6. What kind of student feedback has the Space Systems Engineering Course received?

Student feedback was provided regarding the pilot offering through two course evaluations, an official university survey and an unofficial instructor-developed survey. The surveys were completed by twenty-one students. The official survey uses a five-point scale, with five meaning a most favorable response and one meaning a least favorable response. These responses are reflected in the table below in the rows above the shaded row. The unofficial survey uses a similar scoring method: (1) strongly disagree, (2) disagree, (3) no opinion/neutral, (4) agree, and (5) strongly agree. These responses are reflected in the table below in the rows below the shaded row. It should be noted that the high scores might be attributed to highly motivated students who participated in the pilot course. Future offerings, with a broader spectrum of students, may not demonstrate such positive results.

Systems Engineering Course Evaluation Survey Results

Official Survey Questions:


Course well-organized


Communicated information effectively


Showed interest in student progress


Student freedom of expression


Course of value to date


Overall course rating


Unofficial Survey Questions:


Use of class interaction and Q&A with the professor was at the right level


Class video and guest lecturer enhanced learning and reinforced topics


Use of lecture briefing notes and not a textbook was an adequate delivery of the material


Additional materials (such as JWST examples or outside readings) enhanced lecture notes


Learned new concepts and methods with assignments


7. Did anyone review these materials?

Following the pilot offering, a review and enhancement of the materials were performed by a faculty member (Dr. Paul Graf) from the aerospace engineering department of the University of Colorado-Boulder. In addition, changes were made to the materials based on an extensive evaluation by the pilot students. The revised course modules were distributed as part of a NASA outreach plan to institutions in the NASA Space Grant system. Since the initial distribution, various faculty have provided comments and suggestions for improvement.

An added bonus to the pilot class was the participation of the capstone design professor (Dr. Wallace Fowler), as well as a graduate teaching assistant (John Christian) with a Master’s degree in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech with an emphasis on System Design and Optimization. The participation of all these many perspectives provided continuous improvement on the course content and delivery.

8. What is Ms. Lisa Guerra’s background?
Ms. Guerra has 20+ years experience in the NASA aerospace community. Currently, Ms. Guerra is on an assignment from NASA Headquarters to establish a systems engineering curriculum at The University of Texas at Austin. Ms. Guerra’s most recent position at NASA Headquarters was Acting Director of the Directorate Integration Office in the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. In that position, her responsibilities involved strategic planning, international cooperation, cross-directorate coordination, architecture analysis, and exploration control boards. Prior to this assignment, Ms. Guerra worked in the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, the Biological and Physical Research Enterprise and the Space Science Enterprise in the capacity as Special Assistant to the Associate Administrator. While in the Space Science Enterprise, she managed the Decadal Planning Team – a precursor effort to enabling the Vision for Space Exploration. Ms. Guerra also spent 3 years at the Goddard Space Flight Center as Program Integration Manager for future high-energy astrophysics missions, particularly the James Webb Space Telescope. Ms. Guerra was also an initial member of the NASA Independent Program Analysis Office where she performed annual program assessments, with a focus on cost and risk analyses.

Ms. Guerra started her career at Eagle Engineering Corporation in Houston focusing on conceptual design of advanced spacecraft for human missions to the Moon and Mars. Ms. Guerra continued working on space exploration-oriented assignments at SAIC (Science Applications International Corporation) in support of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Ms. Guerra earned a B.S in Aerospace Engineering and a B.A. in English from the University of Notre Dame. She received a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Her Master’s thesis, “A Commonality Assessment of Lunar Surface Habitation”, was performed under a research grant from the Johnson Space Center. Ms. Guerra is also a contributing author to the McGraw Hill textbook, “Human Spaceflight, Mission Analysis and Design”.

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