Our space sector does not lack news about new tech, business deals, or novel things to come. But, with so much happening, imagine for a moment that the nature of the churn also changed. Would anyone notice? With too much noise, do we miss changes in the signal? The usual tropes marry change and technology talk around NASA, a scientist, a discovery, SpaceX, a start-up, a medical breakthrough. The day’s technology lies along a spectrum, from the hubris of Dr. Frankenstein bringing to life his creation to the humble sense of tech as merely a tool. Out of nowhere come the instruments of change, affecting everyone, carried along, or overrun, as “it lives!”
It’s easy to see technology first, then the result. For engineers and scientists, it’s how we were raised. The prequel doesn’t get the same press. Yet we know our environment encourages innovation or not, and once in a while, it changes the rate of change.
A while back, in May of 2021, The Conference Board published a look ahead at the US labor market with a curious reveal. The working-age population in the US isn’t growing and won’t be growing much anytime soon. The last part is the interesting bit – the US labor force will not grow much in the coming decade. This report likely got lost in the fray at the time. We had other things to worry about, like when we would get our next shot or return to the office and if our routines would ever be the same again.
Now nearly two years later, we see rising wages near the top of the screen, in the headlines over and over. Alongside, there’s more about low unemployment, today’s 3.4% unemployment rate was last seen the year Armstrong walked on the Moon. Right nearby is the US Federal Reserve steadily increasing interest rates, so stories about inflation and housing. The reserve intends to dampen high inflation (mainly not due to rising wages.) When the toolbox only has an interest rate hammer (and a few odd tools with acronyms like QE), guess what tool gets whipped out. Eyes watering over yet?
A short-term view says this too will pass. We just had a global pandemic, with millions of deaths globally, 1.1 million in the US and counting. Then there’s long-Covid. Never mind, higher wages will swell the workforce back to size. Also, people were forced to leave jobs in one place for another, but all this will settle down. Or it’s immigration that’s down, but higher wages will (again) make workers appear (from somewhere unspecified.) These takes comfort – be patient, we’ll get back to normal, whatever that was, soon.
The longer view is quite different. If demographics are destiny, the number of people working is what it is and won’t go up soon because the past has already set the future in stone. As more people leave their work years behind (myself included), the number of people around to fill the empty spots is, at best, forming a very short line.
Your small fan club for that new technology will soon see a boom in membership.
Imagine the Conference Board’s longer-term scenario proves correct – a US workforce that is what it is for the foreseeable future. Here, demand for labor way above supply for a long time means suddenly, easily justifying technology rather than technology struggling to come to life. The sense of “waiting it out” and not investing in new tech while the labor squeeze goes away just won’t seem credible.
That presentation to the boss about the new machine, where the numbers were hard-pressed to “close”? Your small fan club for that new technology will soon see a boom in membership.
It’s for someone else, perhaps an economist, to write about technology adoption speeding up when the demand for labor far exceeds the supply. (It may be a story about farmers who faced with fewer workers more readily adopted tractors and combines. Or it may be about the adoption of automation in the US in the 1950s.) What I can share is my experience with advanced technology in the US space sector.
In the Shuttle program, working in the world of “upgrades” and new technology meant learning a hard lesson over time – failure was the default option. Billions were spent analyzing, testing, or prototyping new technology, but little made its way onto the Space Shuttle. We could take solace, saying at least we learned a lot and look at everything we put on the shelf. If not Shuttle, “someone will run with it, one day.”
If you wanted to replace leaky, problem-prone hydraulic actuators on the Shuttle with electric ones, you might feel heartened by rumors the SpaceX Starship has gone electric. (We eventually concluded the best of all worlds was hybrid – some electro-hydrostatic actuators and some pure electric here and there. Don’t get obsessed with consistency.) This was one of many technologies that fought to be put on the Shuttle, or on a next generation system. While the Shuttle had toxic fluids, we fought for non-toxic replacements. For the Shuttle’s 1st generation tile, people tried to justify 2nd and 3rd generation tile and materials far more resistant to damage. (These made their way onto the rear at the engines.)
We once joked that new technology would get onto the Shuttle when the last person who understood the old system died. NASA spent billions of dollars in attempts to upgrade the launch control centers. When a last push to get new computers finally made some headway, I recall being told the last person at Kennedy who knew how to fix the old-Apollo style keyboards had retired. Now we seriously had to get this done!
What’s different now is necessity appears poised to increase.
As unavoidable as gravity, selling advanced technology got married to reusability and flying more often. What better way to justify the price tag for a new gadget. Each cheaper flight had a savings from the new technology, so the more you flew, the faster you could recover an initial investment. But NASA has only so many payloads, so we had wandered into new territory – “who needs to fly so often?” Where was the demand (or any pressure) for more launches that would justify the automation, technology, the “new and improved”? Sounds familiar?
A leads to B leads to C – and so new technology led to a high flight rate at low cost which led to reusability and growing commercial operations. Yet as my days in the Shuttle program became a full-time job with advanced projects, technical talk gave way to non-technical debate. Beyond volume, for us flight rate, or payloads meaning markets, we always circled back to incentives.
I’ve often written about incentives in aerospace projects. Incentives define the environment in which ideas, like seeds, try and grow. An environment encouraging a high speed is one thing. Encouraging acceleration is probably quite another.
Fast forward, and now we see a robotic apple picker that would be at home in any sci-fi movie, and we would think it’s just special effects. In aerospace, we have robots printing your rocket or winding fiber if it’s composite. This may seem a long-winded version of the obvious, more of what anyone already learned in 3rd grade – “necessity is the mother of invention.” What’s different now is necessity appears poised to increase.
Time will tell if persistently higher wages mean even faster technology adoption – or for some, technology adoption finally. Though there will always be the temptation to find cheaper labor elsewhere, even in aerospace. NASA-speak flipped out the word “mitigate” as if it was always Option A … and B and C.
For spaceflight, whether launchers or what gets launched, low volume presents a peculiar barrier to new, more productive technology – not needed here. Yet what goes on outside aerospace, where ever higher volumes of production are a goal, will not happen in a vacuum. Once you breathe life into a new technology, don’t be surprised it wanders to unexpected places. Even when we saw a technology couldn’t find any takers, at least we too wandered to unexpected places, learning and growing. So, suppose high wages do mean embracing new technology, faster, with less hemming and hawing. In my time at NASA, we saw enough technology hurtles, and failings, and systemic issues we slowly learned dwarfed all that. We also knew when to say, about some challenges – these are the problems we want to have.
(And speaking of technology and what encourages it, a little delusion helps too.)