Thursday, March 15, 2012

Marwan Hussein, SDM '12: Complexity and Interplanetary Space Systems

By Eric Smalley

Marwan Hussein, SDM '12
Photo by Kathy Tarantola Photography
Marwan Hussein, SDM '12, is truly a man of the world. German-born and of Iraqi descent, he lived in Jordan before moving to Canada, and his work takes him to places ranging from the Arizona desert to the Arctic. His job is literally out of this world.

Hussein is a space systems engineer. His latest work for Canadian aerospace firm Optech Incorporated involved leading the design and development of critical guidance and navigation systems for a pair of robotic landers that are slated for launch. "One is on a NASA mission that is going to an asteroid four years from now and the other one is on an Indo-Russian mission that's going to the moon in 2014," he said.

Having a commercial airline pilot for a father accounts for Hussein's peripatetic background and interest in aerospace. Having a vocation that involves systems that span considerable chunks of the universe accounts for his interest in MIT's System Design and Management (SDM) program.

Hussein's experience includes developing space mission concepts, designing critical spacecraft sub-systems, leading multidisciplinary teams, and managing multimillion dollar programs for NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. Much of his work involves introducing innovative designs, yet reducing cost and complexity through the use of commercial off-the-shelf technologies.

Hussein was a co-investigator in several NASA and Canadian Space Agency (CSA) field tests where he worked with astronauts on new rover and sensor prototypes in the Arizona desert and in an impact crater in Devon Island in the Arctic. Such tests aim at preparing for future missions that will see humans return to the moon and set foot for the first time on Mars. His new ideas and dedication in these expeditions earned him awards from NASA.

Hussein's interest in complex systems emerged as he took on increased responsibilities. "I was first working on certain spacecraft subsystems, such as vision and guidance," he said. "As I progressed I was assigned more responsibility in terms of leading the mission's design and managing teams of 10 to 15 engineers, so I was starting to look at the big picture."

"It was clear to me two years ago that I lacked the systems perspective, the holistic engineering perspective on how to develop these complicated systems of systems," Hussein said.

He searched for a graduate program that could give him a formal education in systems thinking. SDM, with its focus on system architecture, product design, systems engineering, and management, was the clear choice, he said.

Hussein's goal is to think from a holistic perspective and apply system dynamics and systems engineering principles to building orbiters, landers and rovers. In short, he's looking for SDM to give him the skills to design and manage the next-generation of planetary exploration systems.

When he finishes the SDM program, Hussein will either return to Optech or get involved with a startup. One of the appeals of MIT is its strong culture of startups, he said. If he does go the startup route, it could well be in the emerging field of commercial space exploration.

Hussein has already lent his consulting expertise to commercial space startups, including one of the entrants to the Google Lunar X Prize competition. The competition will award $20 million or more to the first private company to successfully land and operate a lunar rover by 2015.

These days, most movers and shakers in the space industry are seriously looking to the commercial space exploration market, said Hussein. Perhaps in a few years he'll be one of them.

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