Hardly a space conference passes, or even
a few issues of Space News, without the mention of the “
aging aerospace work force.
” Last I heard the average age of the aerospace professional was 54 years. By looking around the room during a session at the 2007 National Space Symposium, as well as in the mirror, that seemed completely plausible. The stated problem: What will we do when everyone retires? Fear not, friends; I have seen the future and it is good.
As the U.S. Air Force Academy graduated the Class of 2007 May 30
, I looked out on the Falcon Stadium
field and reflected upon my contact with the cadets tossing their hats in the air.
Over the past three years I have had the privilege to sit on several review committees for the Air Force Academy astronautical engineering senior capstone projects. I am always amazed at what young, smart, motivated people can do when given a goal and some latitude to achieve it.
satellites. After a three-year build, the Falconsat
-3 successfully launched in March
from Cape Canaveral and is now in orbit. Although anomalies made initial contact a bit tricky, the cadets figured out how to fix it and now monitor and control it from their own modest ground station in the astronautics lab.
-2, you may remember, was launched in March 2006 on a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. () Falcon 1 booster, which failed. The little spacecraft popped out and landed back on the Island of Omelec
– it crashed right through the roof of its storage shed and plopped next to the very shipping crate in which it had arrived. It is now on display in the Air Force Academy Astronautics Lab. It is a constant reminder that the aerospace business is risky, and failure is merely a part of success.
For the students – indeed for all of us – the lessons of failure are critical. According to scholar Charles Manz, failure is a necessary condition for success. To that end, Professor Bob Sutton of Stanford University suggests that the manager should reward success and failure, but punish inaction. In the case of Falconsat
-2, the cadets and faculty did not miss their learning on this one. There were successes and failures, but no inaction – Air Force Col.
Martin France, head of the
sees to that.
-5 is now off the drawing board and an engineering model successfully competed vibration testing in May. A status review was held in May
and the cadets presented a thoughtful, well researched and documented program that will continue after their graduation. It will be passed to the Class of 2008, and then the Class of 2009 will be with it through launch. The continuity, documentation
and thoroughness required to pass such a complex program through several classes is an important lesson in and of itself, and will serve the cadets well when they are managing aerospace procurement for the taxpayers.
Whether at the Air Force Academy, or no doubt many other universities, time and budgets are finite. As a result, these remarkable young students look for efficient solutions. They simply must use the fastest, cheapest
and best way to tackle their projects or they will not succeed. No going back to Congress for more money or trying to float an engineering change proposal.
High use of commercial products to save time and money and reduce risk was ubiquitous. The word
(commercial-off-the-shelf) is already in their vocabularies. When juxtaposed with what the current generation (the aging work force – that’s us) were doing as undergraduates, it is almost silly. High-tech tools have made their way into the classrooms and the lives of the next generation and moreover they have embraced it –
I have never seen a cadet go anywhere without a laptop glued to his or her hip.
Now it is time for us to embrace them. I have seen many organizations – both government and private sector – indoctrinate newcomers. Some of this includes teaching them the way things are done here –
the company culture. I hope my colleagues in the “aging work force” will resist this temptation, and rather conversely, try to learn from the new generation of space professionals, rather than constraining them with a system and bureaucracy that has outlived its usefulness.
Robert Gates’ talk at
the Air Force Academy’s graduation May 30, advised the new
lieutenants to speak up even when the truth is not popular, but cautioned they may not always be rewarded for altruistic behavior. Similarly, in their book The Knowing Doing Gap, Stanford
professors Jeff Pfeffer and Bob Sutton warn of the dangers of corporate memory used as a substitute for thinking. Because a methodology worked at one time does not assure that it will work under different circumstances. And circumstances are always different in the high-tech world. The best organizations
always are looking for new and better ways to improve their product or service and these ideas often come from newcomers.
France has said:
“I encourage the cadets to disagree, and to feel free to speak up when they see a technical problem or have an issue.
In fact, I like to debate. We can get everything out into the open that way.” He is not kidding. I have witnessed the students and faculty openly debating technical and managerial issues without fear of reprimand.
In the prologue of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book Death by Black Hole, he says: “Perhaps the question is not how smart is an individual of a species, but how smart is the collective power of the entire species.”
: “While natural selection drives Darwinian evolution, the growth of human culture is largely Lamarckian, where new generations of humans inherit the acquired discoveries of the past, allowing cosmic insight to accumulate without limit.”
As our generation added our cosmic insight to the findings of those before us, this new generation has insight that we did not, nor could not, possibly possess, as we grew up with different tools and perspectives. If the aging community of space professionals is smart enough to incorporate the new cosmic insight, perhaps we can excel the collective brain power of the entire species.
Inflexible organizational bureaucracies and requiring outdated technologies only serve to constrain the flow of new ideas. But with some latitude to make their own decisions, I am confident that our new aerospace professionals can solve problems in unique, efficient and creative ways. The future looks good, and I look forward to it.
is an independent consultant. While at Stanford
, earning a doctorate in industrial engineering, she worked with
former Secretary of Defense William Perry
on Defense Department transformational issues.