NASA – TNG

Graph showing two trend lines - The distribution of NASA employees by age in 1993 versus today. Raw data: NASA.
The distribution of NASA employees by age in 1993 (blue line) versus today (red line). Raw data: NASA. Credit: Edgar Zapata, zapatatalksnasa.com

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!

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.

Then and now. A first class stamp was 29 cents in 1992. It is 58 cents today. One thing has not changed. NASA is always a popular pick of the US postal service. And now our stamps last forever! Though with consequences for the 2 cent stamps.

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.

Feeling a little dated? These were our launch room consoles, our launch computers, circa late 1990s. Though calling these computers is a bit like calling your cell phone a calculator. The more modern computer on the far left was a recent addition back then, used for monitoring nearly everything on the Shuttle, but it could not send commands.

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.

8 thoughts on “NASA – TNG

  1. Couldn’t agree more with the statement: Nonetheless, everyone who will make critical decisions as a NASA employee must get quality time in some kitchen. In fact, it goes further in terms of developing tomorrow’s NASA workforce. Those will make make critical decisions on future programs as well can’t wait until then to see their first kitchen process.

    And, I’m glad I’m not the only one who tends to have the messy habit with the post-it notes! I always just assumed it was a flaw in my character…..

    Dave Huntsman

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  2. Doing my part to fix the people problem as Program Manager for the Eastern Florida State College Aerospace Technology program.

    I have 90 current students working toward the space job of the future. Many are hired full time before the end of their third semester. Third semester students usually find an internship, and are hired shortly after it is complete, while completing remaining school work.

    Over 200 students have completed the program since I became an instructor in 2916. The classes have been tailored to meet employer worker needs, and fill the students learning needs.

    https://www.easternflorida.edu/academics/career-technical-programs/our-programs/aerospace-technology/

    Ted

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    1. Ted, that’s fantastic. It also brings something to mind that I was recently made aware of; wonder if you’d been hit with it as well.
      Below is an email to someone who shared it with me; he received it from a PR specialist who’s shopping around a study done by…a moving company, about the best places in the US to grow space professionals! I’ve edited to remove my friend’s name. While clearly the marketer has her job to do – and she’s probably marketing this to a lot of technical shows or podcasts et al that might get it some traction- I want to the related pages to see if there were any there, there. And, it may not be TOTAL bs.

      I was expecting total, complete bs; but I think what it appears to be is a guy (the analyst who actually did the study, not the PR person), who- coming from that pedestrian industry (I guess I’m being stuck up just calling it that, right?)- seems to have tried- from that viewpoint- to take a first cut at: What would it take for a region to later be called on that seems to successfully ‘grows’ future space workers? Once he lays out those criteria- again, from a moving company’s POV (not, for example, an old, pedestrian aerospace engineer like moi)- he then tries to grade various regions around the country.

      It appears that he didn’t consult with anyone in the aerospace industry in doing so. I’m wondering whether that is a deficiency- or, at least, a fresh, ‘unbiased’, approach?
      (The handful of folks I’ve discussed this with were shocked by the fact, for example, the study ranks Texas ‘low’ on the totem pole, because of things like environment, safety, overall quality of life issues; ie things a non-space person might consider for their family- who are presumably humans & not all far-right Republicans).

      Anyway, just for grins, here’s the PR person’s memo as they try to shop around the study- but it includes the link. (I didn’t know how to copy the hot link, so I just copied and pasted the link itself after the title. How would I normally go about doing that??).

      Cheers,
      Dave
      ————
      From: Kristen Klepac
      Sent: Monday, September 13, 2021 6:04 AM
      To: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
      Subject: Story Idea – Cities for Launching Aspiring Astronauts to the Stars [Study]

      Hi Dr.xxxxxxx,

      I’m reaching out to you with a new study I thought would be a fit for sharing with The xxxxxx audience.

      With billionaires blasting off into space and the private space industry booming, the possibility of civilians launching off into infinity (and beyond!) may actually be within our lifetime. This newfound travel sector brings an increasing demand for astronaut and space expert jobs.

      Our team has partnered with moveBuddha to try to uncover where in the US could those fascinated with the world beyond gravity find the best opportunities to launch a career in space travel, the best cities to potentially commute into work (and maybe commute into space?), and also the best cities for kids with dreams of sailing through the stars.

      Findings from moveBuddha’s top U.S. Cities to Launch a Career in Space Travel (https://www.movebuddha.com/blog/best-cities-astronaut-space-jobs ) include:

      Our analysis factored in education, cities offering foundations of good health, and cities that may offer better job prospects for aspiring astronauts.
      The Washington, D.C. greater metropolitan area offers the ideal combination of educational and career opportunities as well as a healthy environment to nourish the mind and body of aspiring astronauts. The top 3 cities with the best overall scores are Arlington (VA), Alexandria (VA), and Washington (DC).
      Southern California is a hotspot thanks to rigorous STEM university programs and multiple space tech companies (SpaceX, Virgin Galactic). For job opportunities, Sunnyvale, CA shines thanks to almost 75% of the population holding a STEM degree and close proximity to work opportunities.
      For future astronauts, we’ve uncovered the best cities to help set kids up for success. While typical hots spots pop up (Washington D.C. metro, Southern CA, NYC, and Seattle-area), slipping in the number 25 spot is up-and-coming Austin.
      Despite one of NASA’s major hubs being in Houston and the recent arrival of SpaceX in Austin and Brownsville, Texas cities are surprisingly absent largely because of middle-of-the-road environmental health scores, educational access, and job proximity.
      Would love to hear what you think of our study and whether it’s worth sharing in any of your next shows or in any future writing on the topic.

      Thanks so much,

      Kristen Klepac
      Content Marketing Specialist

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  3. “Nonetheless, everyone who will make critical decisions as a NASA employee must get quality time in some kitchen.”

    If NASA employees will no longer have “time in the kitchen” with a NASA vehicle as we inevitably move to a commercial only structure, does that mean we can’t make “critical decisions”?

    Sometimes I hear the argument that SLS should exist simply for that “time in the kitchen”… doesn’t make sense to me. I wonder if the era of the 25 to 29 year old working on a NASA rocket is over.

    Maybe it should be over. Maybe those 25 to 29 year olds should go work for SpaceX, ULA, Blue Origin, Rocket Lab, and others…then when they are 55 to 59 they should come to NASA and make those “critical decisions”. I think there will still be a place for 25 to 29 years olds at NASA working on NASA payloads, developing technologies, and other things that are too high risk for industry… but a rocket, that seems to be a thing of the past.

    Also, how does the Space Force do it? Haven’t they been essentially commercial for over 30 years? Are they making “critical decisions” without “quality time in the kitchen”?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. David, this is the type of discussion that I wish were happening more within NASA in an intelligent way. As someone who has headed up both Program engineering organizations as well as Center line Engineering organizations, let me give you my two cents worth:

      Giving up ISN’T AN OPTION; but NOT changing isn’t an option, either. The problem is that NASA has no central, intelligent, organized voice on technical aerospace workforce issues for the future- with any authority- whose job it is to do anything about it.

      The type of change I’ve ended up concluding would be useful is one that fundamentally breaks down the barriers between the civil service technical workforce, and the private/commercial technical workforce. A simplistic example would be one that not only allowed, but actually Encouraged and rewarded, extended details of 1-2 years, both ways, between corporate/private organizations and the civil service; starting with relatively young-ish engineer levels (eg GS 11-ish, assuming having hired as a fresh-out). And vice-versa having folks from industry detailed into government labs for a while and then go back. Everyone would have to be volunteers- you’d actually have to want to go and be exposed to different ways of doing things and not only ready to learn, but willing to ‘teach’; and all sides would have to be willing to loosen up their sphincters a little (especially the corporate side; but on the NASA side, personnel rules and regulations as well). But NASA can’t be insulated any longer; we need tech and experience spin OUT- and spin IN- from the human standpoint; or NASA folks under the current system become increasingly irrelevant.

      Dave Huntsman

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    2. David, there is lots to unwrap there.

      First, the notion a NASA employee would work more hands-on early in their career in the private sector would imply an odd demographic curve, or “spike,” for NASA. Where are the fresh perspectives? Second, I imagine salary issues would come too; who would leave company X to work for NASA as just one more GS-13 at age 45, dropping salary significantly?

      The other tack, NASA employees working R&D/technology early in their careers, is one I think is very promising. Yet even that has issues, even with funding growth in the Space Tech area (“STMD”). Each NASA researcher would need funding for real hardware, lab time, etc. I am pretty sure that implies procurement funding (real dollars researchers can spend) well above and beyond current levels, even with recent budget growth there.

      Though in the end, these are “what-ifs,” as what is needed is data down to the directorate and project level, NASA civil servants vs. their procurement dollar power. Recognizing a problem is the first step. Gathering that data (ratios) by area is the next step (and not difficult). We are probably not at step 1 yet, though, which is why I wrote about this.

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