Posted inOpinion

OpEd: A World-Class Work Force for Exploring Other Worlds


magine that you are an aspiring professional baseball player striding onto the field at Yankee Stadium for the first time. You have had the best instruction you could have received; all of the baseball superstars have patiently explained the game to you in classrooms, complete with detailed charts drawn on blackboards. But you’ve never actually played the game before

– not in little league, not in the minors

and certainly not in the majors. Chances are you’re going to get booed from the stadium. Classroom instruction can help, but the only way to learn baseball is to play baseball.

The same is true for becoming a skilled systems engineer or a project manager – classroom instruction can only take you so far, but you have to learn by doing. Just as it is with an aspiring baseball player, it is better for program managers to get experience at progressively more difficult levels. They should

start by working on small projects and seeing them through from beginning to end to learn

how all the different parts of a complex vehicle interact.

Naturally, breaking things and making mistakes is part of the learning process. Errors in spacecraft design, as in baseball, can teach you valuable lessons, but the goal is to make fewer of them as you progress.

And it is better if mistakes due to inexperience arise on small projects rather than on major ones.

Unfortunately, the opportunities for starting with small projects before graduating to larger and more complex spacecraft, including human spacecraft, are limited in the current

U.S. space program. Small projects such as the payloads launched on sounding rockets, carried underneath high-altitude balloons

or aboard high-altitude research aircraft, are less common than they were

in previous decades.

Recently the National Research Council’s (NRC) Committee on Meeting the Future Workforce Needs for the Vision for Space Exploration, which we led, produced its report “Building a Better NASA Workforce.” The findings and recommendations set out in the report share a common theme: NASA needs to think long

term about work-force issues

and also needs to provide hands-on opportunities for developing the necessary skills

that are vital to keep programs on schedule and within budget.

The committee agreed with NASA Administrator Mike Griffin that the agency needs experienced employees in order to oversee its contractor teams. It also agreed with Dr. Griffin that NASA is not the Department of Education. However, the committee determined that the agency needed to focus on and

actively support

training for current and potential employees in the skills that are central to mission success.

Our NRC committee found that NASA has started to make progress in identifying the skill sets that it will require for implementing the Vision for Space Exploration. However, we found

that NASA must

develop a comprehensive model that specifies the required skills for

each field center. The agency has not done that, and we saw indications that NASA is so focused on the short-term human resources and budgeting problem of “uncovered capacity” –

civil servants who do not currently have projects that can pay for them – that they are subordinating the strategic issues.

We also identified other problems.

While NASA has a good graduate student fellowship program for young scientists,

there is no equivalent for young engineers. NASA’s fellowship programs are not as competitive as those sponsored by other government agencies. In recent years the agency also has

cut funding

from its worker training programs like the Academy of Program/Project and Engineering Leadership


needs to reinvigorate these relatively inexpensive programs.

The agency needs to provide

hands-on training opportunities in the suborbital program for undergraduate and graduate students;

it needs to provide similar opportunities for its own workers;

and it needs to continue to support these programs as well as small spacecraft programs like the Explorer missions.

Although Alan Stern, NASA’s new associate administrator for science,

apparently recognizes the importance of these small programs in maintaining the health of the science discipline, our committee was specifically focused on these opportunities not for science, but for engineering experience – including their potential for creating a pool of future engineers on human spaceflight projects and

robotic spacecraft. This is where NASA recruits and trains the people

it will need for its bigger projects, and the agency

must recognize the role

these programs play in the long-term health of its projects and in

NASA’s vitality.

We recommended that in some cases NASA should rank work-force development and training equally with scientific priorities when selecting winning proposals for funding. The relatively small amounts of money for doing some of these things could be redirected from NASA’s education budget, specifically targeting students and skills that NASA requires for its missions.

Our committee noted that nontraditional approaches to the agency’s missions,

such as the Centennial Challenges program, which awards

prizes for developing innovative space hardware, also play a role in attracting skilled members of the work force from other areas. A recent example of this is

the Astronaut Glove Challenge in which

an unemployed engineer,

who had left the aerospace sector a decade ago for apparently better prospects in the computer field, produced an astronaut glove that is superior to those currently in use. This was a dedicated and innovative worker whom the aerospace sector had lost, but has now regained due to a new way of engaging the engineering community.

Finally, our committee faced a dilemma:

Whereas it is relatively easy to formulate recommendations for NASA, the space agency is only one part of the team needed to achieve the v

ision. Industry

also is facing similar issues. Furthermore, NASA, the aerospace industry

and the Department of Defense all compete for talent, and the supply of that talent – the nation’s universities – is affected by the availability of funds. There is a danger that the actions of one of these organizations can directly harm or contradict the interests of the others.

Our committee had no magic solution to this problem, but recommended that the executive branch and/or Congress seek to coordinate aerospace work-force policies and include representatives of industry and academia. Congress passed the Interagency Aerospace Workforce Revitalization Task Force Act to address similar issues, but we are concerned that this task force is only a short-term entity, whereas the problems of policy coordination will require long-term attention, and a national-level mechanism is vital to sorting them out.

NASA needs a world-class team in order to explore other worlds. It needs top-notch civil servants as well as scientists and engineers in academia and industry.

But it cannot simply plan to push them into the Big Show without preparation. It needs to attract them, recruit them, nurture them

and teach them how to hit the ball out of the park.

Dan Hastings is currently the undergraduate dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. David Black is the former president of the University Space Research Association. They served as co-chairs of the NRC’s Committee on Meeting the Future Workforce Needs for the Vision for Space Exploration, whose report, “Building a Better NASA Workforce,” was released in April.