The award said it was amazing what I could accomplish, “with an endless supply of NASA interns.” This much was true, as they did great work. I mentored many students in their summers at the Kennedy Space Center. They always amazed me with a refreshing perspective on what might otherwise be a daily grind of spreadsheets, models and meetings. This was especially so with interns that possessed what I thought proper qualifications to work at NASA – working well in a team, being easily entertained, and having a sense of humor. This year’s intern added a memorable phrase to a recognition award for me, her mentor. A sense of humor, check!
Graph above: The distribution of NASA employees by age in 1993 (blue line) versus today (red line). Raw data: NASA. Credit: Edgar Zapata, zapatatalksnasa.com
That summer, I also discovered enough post-it notes were in stock to cover every square inch of my office. Including every object on my desk. And the desk. Perhaps my post-it notes with to-dos for my intern had gotten out of hand? I made a mental note that the prank involved help from other interns. Works well in a team, check!
I’m recently retired, but once upon a time I was a new hire on the other end of this equation. It was me hoping to show the proper qualifications to work at NASA (easily entertained, check!)
When I arrived, NASA had as many people my age, 25 to 29, as there were 55 to 59. The NASA hiring spree after the loss of Challenger was well set to fill the ranks of the soon to retire Apollo generation. By the late 1990s it seemed there was free food at least once a week, just from all the going away parties as the 1960s hires retired.
The Apollo generation built multiple spaceflight programs, from scratch. They went from rockets that did not exist to massive Saturn rockets, then to the Moon enough times for the networks to decide it was too boring to interrupt the regularly scheduled programming. In the early 1970s this generation moved to the nascent Shuttle program, making a spaceplane a reality. Eventually, this would launch enough times that it was also thought so routine. If you stayed around long enough, and moved around as well, you were part of putting a man on the Moon, creating a reusable Shuttle, then a space station, and starting a program to return to the Moon (the canceled Constellation program.) Though I knew of only a handful at Kennedy who could say this.
And as usually happens when exploring data, you see an immediate problem, then something hidden, and more critical.
You would be part of a scarce group if you arrived after Apollo, but in time to be part of the Shuttle development. More likely, and the larger generation, were those who began with the Shuttle already flying. My sizable post-Challenger generation was in that 25 to 29 bracket in 1993. This generation would see the Shuttle as a given, operational, and a space station program struggling to figure out its next steps. The Space Launch System/Orion followed, and so too an earlier, less advertised program with a new way for NASA to get its cargo and crew to orbit.
Jumping to the present, a lopsidedness sticks out. There are no longer as many people in NASA age 25 to 29 as 55 to 59. It’s easy but premature to dismiss this by simply pointing out the total number of NASA employees has dropped. The temptation is to say there were 26,146 NASA employees and 1993, versus 18,084 today, and today’s curve will soon flatten out too, just at a lower level.
This thought is comforting but incorrect. And as usually happens when exploring data, you see an immediate problem, then think about something hidden and more critical.
The immediate problem is the band 25 to 29 today should be higher to match the group over 40 and flatten out the curve even as the number of employees drops. This can be fixed with a hiring spree to match any upcoming retirements. I was often told by those I left behind, “I will be leaving after the first SLS launch.” Predicting what will really happen is a personnel science, so fixing this may be manageable.
When looking at age groups, then and now, what is critical is asking if anything has changed. Has enough changed to make the lines apples and oranges? It’s been a few decades, and a lot has changed.
Fridays, and as the opportunity arose, I would get the interns out and about to see real hardware. There’s nothing like a Shuttle orbiter. It just does not get old. If you crawl around enough to ruin your jeans, you might just learn something new. And who knows, ripped jeans might be a thing one day. Or it could just be a beautiful day to go to the launch pad. This was a time when a NASA badge got you anywhere. Just act like you own the place I said, which in a sense, you do.
Technicians were always glad to talk to “the young people.” These field trips were necessary to see and appreciate the real world behind the mind-numbing amount of information we asked our students to absorb back at their desks. Kennedy educational programs went further, arranging even more lectures, with visits to facilities and flight hardware.
It’s a cliché that NASA spends 90 cents of every dollar it receives from Congress. The less traveled version is that the 10 cents are the NASA-badged federal employee workforce. The first version usually gets around more. These are “personnel” in NASA-speak, and today the number is about 12 cents of every dollar (twenty years ago, it was 15 cents).
It’s also somewhat more complicated than a simple number, but close enough. You can jump from 10 cents on the dollar to answering the question – how much of any project’s costs are NASA employees? The answer is, not surprisingly, usually around 10 percent. That is until a new, less advertised program with an entirely new way to get NASA to low Earth orbit after the Shuttle program’s end. The commercial cargo program for the ISS ran at 3 percent. Playing a little 3-card Monty, where is the other 7 percent?
Of the $500 million originally allocated in 2006, C3PO designated only 3 percent for program management, leaving 97 percent, or about $485 million, to give directly to the commercial partners.NASA Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Final Report.
An essential ingredient of commercial programs is about property. Who’s is it? (And can you walk in like you own the place? No.) The Space Shuttle, as with the SLS or Orion today, was government property, as were the facilities and every nut, bolt and tile. Hardware arrived at Kennedy and NASA employees oversaw their contractor counterparts to prepare it all for launch. As we were fond of saying, “Kennedy is where it all comes together.”
In commercial programs, the hardware is the property of the private sector partner (say SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, or Boeing.) Their facilities, though on government property, are not government-owned either. These may be leased from the government, but more likely, they are wholly owned by the partner (just on leased land).
The hardware was just a walk away or just a short drive away in the middle of the night.
So, a NASA badge will not get you around as much today as when I walked about anywhere or when I hollered “field trip” to the interns. And therein lies the rub. There is a hidden challenge in the data. How do we make sure NASA – the Next Generation grasps (literally) the space system and people they will manage, as real, palpable, in front of them, in their hands? The call at one in the morning about some problem? “I will be right in,” I said, rather than debate if I understood what I am being asked to approve over the phone. This happened many times in my career. After all, the hardware was just a walk away or just a short drive away in the middle of the night. And yes, bunny suit in hand, or safety harness, or hardhat, I’m going to see it myself, up close. Then we can talk.
If you are of a school that you have to get your hands dirty to learn, if you are to one day run the place and do even better than when you showed up, then NASA – we have a problem. These days of Zoom and Teams and remote work add even more distance from the reality of stuck valves, a misaligned jig, or a firing room console. But that exists atop more remoteness, the kind the comes with going commercial.
The Kennedy commercial crew office is a case in point. Soon after commercial cargo to the ISS established a sea-change inside NASA, a similar approach came to getting crew to the ISS. The commercial crew office at Kennedy numbers about fifty NASA employees. Other centers contribute more personnel, but not much more. The simple math is a program with the yearly dollars of the commercial crew program would traditionally have hundreds more NASA employees. Consistent with a commercial mindset focused on results and less on activity and encouraging innovation, government management is leaner. There are fewer cooks in the kitchen, and this is good. Responsibilities are well defined. Nonetheless, everyone who will make critical decisions as a NASA employee must get quality time in some kitchen.
It’s easy to overlook how technology and innovation go hand in hand with organizational change and disruption. The smaller, leaner commercial program offices move NASA forward, but with after-shocks. You have to have once been close to the hardware, just a walk away, to later be able to step back. But such a trend is not sustainable if no one ever had the close-in, hands-on experience one day.
Oddly, being leaner, to date, a small minority of NASA employees are seeing these new ways of doing business first hand. But having much less NASA in one place, meaning much more than usual in another, can only last so long as NASA shifts increasingly toward commercial programs. This is an excellent new problem to have as a consequence of fixing another. It seems there is no lack of adventures for the next generation. Or to-dos. Let’s put that on a post-it.