Space and the Work Force of the Future

Chairman Walker, distinguished Commission members, Mr. Huettner and distinguished Commission staff: thank you for the opportunity to share my observations and thoughts on the issue of Space and the Work Force of the Future.

The Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry is being asked to consider a vast array of issues — technical, economic, political, domestic, international, industrial, institutional, financial and more — affecting the current and future health of the U.S. aerospace industry. It is a daunting task. Layered and intertwined among all these issues is the fundamental issue of people. The aerospace industry is, after all, people. It is not so much the companies, organizations, agencies, laboratories, factories, and so on. It is the engineer, the software designer, the project manager, the pilot, flight controller, astronaut, scientist, manager, laborer, fabricator, assembler, integrator, process controller, mathematician, inventor, tester, analyst, imagineer — it is people, not things, that make up this great industry, this great national treasure.

People, and their ideas, intellectual capital and abilities, are the U.S. aerospace industry’s most important resource. And because this collective resource is in fact an agglomeration of more than a million unique individuals, it is not easily characterized and cannot be as tidily managed as a shipment of aerospace grade titanium. People are infinitely complex and variable and yet it is people that are at the heart of the current and future challenges facing the industry. The Commission is to be applauded for recognizing the Work Force of the Future as a central issue to the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry.

Your inquiries to this point have no doubt convinced you that space and aerospace industries face some daunting people-related challenges. Among these are:

  • The loss of critical skills. As government contracting has waned and consolidation has thinned the ranks, fewer and fewer aerospace companies exist and more and more skilled engineers and technical experts have migrated away from aerospace.
  • The graying of the work force. Depending on which study you consult, the average NASA employee is about 51 years old and the average aerospace industry employee is not far from it. Consolidation begat early retirements of the most senior workers, and layoffs among the most junior. Industry has retained the middle aged worker while largely putting its most senior mentors out to pasture and sending its up-and-comers to other industries.
  • A shallow pool of college graduates from which to recruit. The U.S. education system is producing fewer and fewer college graduates with the math, science and technical skills required for aerospace and other high tech industries. Fewer and fewer students are pursuing technical studies while an ever-larger segment of the economy demands these skills.
  • The cultural and financial inability of aerospace companies to compete for college graduates. The ever-increasing U.S. aversion to risk has become manifest in the government contracting process, spawning a risk-averse culture within aerospace which college graduates find dull, uninteresting, boring and unchallenging in comparison to other high-tech fields of endeavor. Additionally, FAR requirements which limit contractor profits also limit contractor ability to offer compensation plans comparable to those prevalent in other industries.
  • The general perception of space and aerospace as a boring, callous, "rust belt" place to work. A generation raised with the expectation that humans should "Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before" is bored with the same old airplanes, the same old rockets, the same old low-earth-orbit stuff. The Space Shuttle was already flying before today’s college graduates were even born, and they’ve seen nothing new from NASA or industry in their life time. Aerospace headlines for the past decade have been predominantly about layoffs and consolidation, not growth.

It is not my purpose, in this testimony, to characterize these problems in detail. The members and staff of the commission have already heard a great deal on all these issues. Indeed, many of you participated recently in the Space Foundation’s 18th National Space Symposium, where these issues and others affecting the industry were addressed by the leading authorities in the world, exhaustively, for a period of four consecutive days. These work force issues are well articulated. The focus of this testimony, therefore, is on offering some ideas about how these concerns might be addressed.

irst, let us consider the loss in critical skills and some of the root causes of this problem. One example of how we are short in critical skills can be found in the current quest for hypersonics expertise that vexes Dr. Ronald Sega, Director of Defense Research & Engineering at the Pentagon. Hypersonic technology is viewed as a critical enabling technology for future missile defense systems; this same technology will likely have tremendous application in the development of next-generation space launch systems. Unfortunately our current national expertise in hypersonics is small, scattered and disjointed. Several factors drive this, and they are common to other critical skills shortages. One factor has been industry consolidation. Where once we would have seen multiple companies with multiple well-funded IR&D efforts under way — often fostering technology competitions within the companies as well as among competitors — today we more commonly see a single consolidated, streamlined, downsized, frugally funded "one company" IR&D effort. While consolidation has produced some benefits for shareholders it has simultaneously contributed to a technology drought for the space and aerospace industry and the nation. Through the process we have also retired and "out-placed" many of our technicians, sending them to industries where the pay, benefits and work culture are better than what aerospace offers. They are unlikely to return to the dull gray environs of aerospace. So the lesson here for the Commission is that our nation must have policies that look much more strategically at the phenomenon of industry consolidation. Efficiencies in manufacturing, reduction of overhead and elimination of excess capacity are not the only concerns. The degree to which consolidation injures our technology base and IR&D competitiveness needs to be considered. Another common thread in critical skills loss is generally reduced government investment in aerospace research and development. We cannot blame the contracting community alone for not investing. At NASA, for example, the phenomenon of large operational programs consuming budget to the detriment of R&D and basic science has been forcefully argued on The Hill and in the press. The Department of Defense has been challenged to increase pay and benefits to our men and women in service while maintaining aging equipment and infrastructure that becomes costlier by the day. R&D investment has not had the highest priority in recent years. We must consider the true cost of this posture, and adopt a national aerospace R&D policy and implementing strategies that boost federal R&D spending, encourage competitive IR&D efforts in industry, and attract the best and brightest minds to this industry. Developing a next-generation hypersonic vehicle ought to be more interesting and appealing a career track than developing the next-generation video game for X-box. Legislation such as the recently introduced Aeronautics R&D Revitalization Act must be encouraged, supported and expanded. Companion legislation increasing defense and space related R&D must be made a priority.

he graying of the space and aerospace work force, although a crucial concern, is more a manifestation of other systemic problems than it is a distinct, addressable problem in and of itself. It is a symptom of the illness, and we need to treat the illness rather than its symptoms. We need to look at root causes. As I’ve already mentioned, our insufficiently strategic policies toward industry consolidation are one of the root causes. The inability of industry and government to attract and retain the best and the brightest is another, and it is by far the more alarming.

he biggest crisis facing this industry is the shallow pool of technically skilled domestic college graduates from which to recruit. This is not just an aerospace crisis. It is a true national crisis. Every other high-tech industry in the country is confronted by it. And it is driven not by aerospace policy, but by education policy. The U.S. education system is producing fewer and fewer college graduates with the math, science and technical skills required for the aerospace and space industry, or for that matter for many other high tech industries. Fewer and fewer students are pursuing technical studies while an ever-larger segment of the economy demands these skills. Some statistics, courtesy of the National Science Foundation:

  • From 1993 to 1998 graduate level enrollment in science and engineering programs in the United States dropped from 435,869 students to 404,903.
  • While total enrollment was declining, the percentage of foreign, non-U.S. citizen students within the total enrollment was increasing. There were 105,721 non-U.S. citizens enrolled in these U.S. science and engineering programs in 1993 (less than 25 percent), and 109,904 in 1999 (more than 25 percent). American universities are training an increasing number of foreign competitors and a decreasing number of home-grown students.
  • The number of students pursuing graduate degrees in science and engineering with special applicability to the space and aerospace community is quite small and declining:
    • In Aerospace Engineering, there were only 3,940 enrolled graduate students in the country in 1993, and that number had dropped to 3,137 by 1998.
    • In Mechanical Engineering, there were 18,477 enrolled graduate students in the country in 1993, declining to just 14,696 by 1998.
    • In Electrical Engineering, there were 35,290 enrolled graduate students in the country in 1993, down to 31,129 in 1998.
    • Despite the perception that the U.S. is a burgeoning powerhouse in information technology, enrollment in graduate level computer engineering studies has been in steady decline since 1985.

This fundamental problem of declining supply and increasing demand has many dimensions. One of particular concern and great familiarity to the Space Foundation is the K-12 pipeline. The Space Foundation has fielded education programs for K-12 teachers for some 15 years now, and has provided professional development and continuing education training for more nearly 20,000 teachers in 49 states. In recent years, we have seen some disturbing trends. These trends have great meaning. Inasmuch as the K-12 system acts as the "supplier" or "input source" for colleges and universities, it is fair to characterize our current dilemma at the university level as "garbage in, garbage out."

Much of the problem in K-12 education stems from poor pay and work conditions for teachers, and how that impacts the average quality of teacher and thereby the overall quality of education in our public schools. A teacher acquaintance who recently left education for a career change summed it up nicely: "I have a Masters’ Degree and ten year’s professional experience, and I’m still making less than $30,000 a year. Would you do this?"

The issue of underpaid, overworked and unqualified teachers in our education system has received a great deal of attention over the years. Education reform in the United States is a huge issue and merits a top-level Congressional Commission of its own. In fact such a look was taken, specific to math and science education, by a special commission led by former astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn. The conclusions of the so-called "Glenn Commission" are instructive for the "Walker Commission" in that they remain every bit as relevant today as when they were issued two years ago. To quote from its report:

The Glenn Commission found not only that U.S. high school students are “devastatingly far from” the national goal of being first in the world in science and math, but also that “the basic teaching style in too many mathematics and science classes today remains essentially what it was two generations ago.

In addition to better teacher recruitment and preparation, and more support, planning time, and professional development opportunities for in-service teachers, the report places major emphasis on paying teachers a competitive, merit-based salary. “One powerful litmus test of how serious we are about providing high-quality [teaching],” it notes, “is what we are willing to pay good mathematics and science teachers.”

The report cites three goals, and then provides a series of specific strategies, targeted at various sectors, to achieve each goal. It estimates that the strategies proposed will cost over $5 billion annually.

GOAL 1: “Establish an ongoing system to improve the quality of mathematics and science teaching in grades K-12.” To achieve this goal, states must undertake assessments of teachers’ needs; Summer Institutes for teacher professional development must be established; local Inquiry Groups must be set up for teachers to work together and share ideas; facilitators must be trained for the Institutes and Inquiry Groups; a dedicated Internet portal must be made available to teachers; a non- governmental Coordinating Council must be established to coordinate and assess these efforts; and states and local districts should implement reward and incentive programs for good teaching.

GOAL 2:”Increase significantly the number of mathematics and science teachers and improve the quality of their preparation.” The report recommends identifying exemplary models of teacher preparation programs; developing a strategy to attract more qualified candidates to teaching; and the creation of 15 Mathematics and Science Teaching Academies by consortia of existing institutions.

GOAL 3: “Improve the working environment and make the teaching profession more attractive for K-12 mathematics and science teachers.” Recommendations include Induction programs to acclimate new teachers and set up mentoring relationships; district/business partnerships to provide materials, equipment, and other resources; incentives, rewards and recognition for deserving teachers; and improved salaries for all teachers, especially those in science and math.

While the Glenn Commission focused on Math and Science, roughly the same conclusions can be drawn for virtually every area of instruction in public schools. Clearly the reform of the entire U.S. K-12 public education system is beyond the scope of the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry. However, it would seem appropriate for the Commission to identify this issue as one of critical importance to the nation, and to make some inputs to Congress and the President about why and how it must be solved.

A more recent phenomenon in K-12 public education must also be addressed, and that is the significant, unintended negative impact of politically mandated testing schemes that have been implemented across the country. The genesis of these new tests is laudable — a desire for greater accountability from the schools for student performance. The unfortunate consequence, however, has been a regressive paradigm shift in education; our schools are no longer responsible for "educating" our students, but rather are now responsible for drilling students in a restricted data set to enable them to pass a specific examination. True learning and the development of critical thinking skills have been placed on the back burner and all attention is focused on drilling for tests. Especially unfortunate for the space and aerospace industry is the fact that math and science education is becoming a casualty as entire school systems and states focus on point testing for other skills. Allow me to illustrate with some examples:

  • About two years ago, the Space Foundation, in collaboration with several other educational organizations, a community development authority, a large prime contractor and others approached one of the nation’s largest school districts with a concept for developing an aerospace-based educational resource center to serve teachers with professional development services, experiences and training. This school district, which is one of the nation’s largest and serves a community with a very large concentration of high tech industries, flatly rejected the overture. The reason given was that the district was solely focused on training students to pass the state’s standardized testing — which was exclusively focused on literacy and therefore science and math were of no interest to the school district.
  • More recently I visited with an executive from one of the world’s largest high tech companies about his experiences mentoring a student team competing in the FIRST robotics program. The program organizes groups of high school students and mentors from their communities into engineering teams that compete in the field of robotics. Teacher involvement is desired. The high tech executive recounted how his team had difficulty in starting because the school principal would not authorize teacher participation in such an extracurricular activity focused on science and math. The reasoning, again, was the perceived need of the principal to focus all teaching on a state standards test that was focused on literacy to the exclusion of science and math. What is particularly alarming in this case is that the school in question is in fact a Technology Magnet School and purports to be the showcase school for math and science within its school district.
  • To add insult to injury, it is not unknown that such math and science start-up organizations within schools have been prohibited from fundraising by administrators who were concerned the group’s activities might harm fundraising by cheerleading squads and athletic teams.

The point of all these examples dealing with K-12 education is not to suggest that the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry should take on the task of developing a plan to reform America’s schools. The point is that the crisis in our schools is of strategic national importance. The future of the U.S. aerospace industry is at risk because of it. The Commission is urged to strongly recommend Presidential and Congressional action aimed at meaningful, systemic education reform that emphasizes the development of critical thinking abilities and the inclusion of math, science and technology as fundamental components to any modern definition of education.

he cultural and financial inability of aerospace companies to compete for college graduates, and the general perception of space and aerospace as a boring, callous, "rust belt" industry, are two issues that go hand in hand. There are three key influences at play here that the Commission should consider in making its recommendation. These are the cultural influences of risk aversion, the paucity of exciting new federal or industrial programs, and the limitations placed upon the contracting community by the restrictive profit margins inherent in the FAR.

While it is true that the entire American culture seems to have become increasingly risk averse over the years, no where is this more fully manifested than in the aerospace and space industries — especially since the Challenger accident, and with the post-Gulf War expectation that wars can be waged largely without U.S. casualties. This attitude manifests itself in the space and aerospace industries in a culture that does everything it can to make exciting projects seem dull, mundane, boring — in short, risk-free. The aerospace life, which in the 50’s and 60’s was characterized by test pilots and engineers experiencing life by the seat of their pants, is seen today as a life of cubicles, view-graph presentations, computer simulations, and not much that is particularly exciting or interesting. Government and industry must find ways to accept higher levels of risk in programs. With all that needs to be accomplished in the next 20 to 50 years, aerospace and space ought to be the most thrilling and compelling industries in the nation. If we wish to attract the best and brightest young minds to this industry, we need to embrace risk and make this business as thrilling as we reasonably can.

The paucity of exciting government programs plays an important role, for only government can accept certain kinds of risk or fund certain kinds of developments. While correlation does not prove causation, the ebb and flow of our college-aged population into and out of engineering and science degree programs tracks interestingly over time. During the heyday of the Apollo program, enrollment in science and engineering studies increased. When Apollo 17 brought the program to a close, enrollment declined. During the development and test of the Space Shuttle, enrollment again increased. After the shuttle moved from development and test to routine operations, enrollment again declined. Is it too much to expect that we would see a dramatic increase in engineering and science enrollments (especially in the aerospace disciplines) if the U.S. were to embark on a big, dramatic, exciting new space program? While there would be many reasons offered suggesting we not launch into a large and costly new space program — reasons of practicality, frugality and political correctness — there are likewise many reasons to recommend such a dramatic step. It is the very audacity and daring of programs like the X-15, Apollo and space shuttle that make them so fundamentally American. It is the notion, so manifest in such programs, that only Americans can do such things, which makes them so exciting. It is the bold and the difficult that awakens the dreamer and the pioneer in us all, and stimulates the interest in engineering and science that are so crucial to developing the work force of the future.


The aerospace industry itself often draws criticism — especially from young students moving into the work force marketplace — for being low-tech, low-pay, and boring. The ultra-conservative nature of the industry and its leadership cannot be denied. But it must be recognized that the industry is shaped by its customers and its financial health. As long as conservative government contracting teams prefer to hire gray bearded, pin-striped, brown-shoed baby boomers instead of the blue-haired, tattooed, nose-ringed youth of Generation X, the same old conservative ideas will prevail and the space and aerospace work force will continue to age. The government contracting process, which rewards conservatism and risk aversion, must change to a process that rewards creativity and innovation. The Space Foundation has already briefed the Commission, in our previous testimony, about the need to reconfigure the contracting process to encourage the innovation and participation of those small and small-disadvantaged businesses which are presently excluded by the onerous and burdensome nature of the process. This is vital. At the same time, the cultural influences of governmental contracting, which drive contractors to conservative solutions, must change to embrace our younger generation. Of no less importance is that government must revisit the financial limitations imposed on contractors by the FAR. We cannot reasonably expect aerospace companies to invest significant sums on recruiting, training, educational development, mentoring programs and the like when the FAR allows them only the thinnest of profit margins.

r. Chairman, Commissioners and Staff, I thank you for allowing me to address just a few of the critical issues confronting the space and aerospace industries with regards to the Work Force of the Future. In closing, I would like to share two recent experiences that give me great hope for the future. These experiences suggest to me that it is entirely appropriate for this Commission to "Dare Greatly."

On April 10 the Space Foundation and United States Space Command hosted a special luncheon program tribute, "A Salute to America’s Military Astronauts." Nearly 30 American heroes from the Gemini, Apollo, Space Shuttle and Space Station programs were honored at this event. Participating in the luncheon were the astronauts and their families, and nearly 700 representatives of the aerospace industry — both government employees and private contractors. As each astronaut was introduced, his or her accomplishments were announced and video footage was shown. It was an incredibly emotional event. Spontaneous cheers erupted. At times the crowd leapt to its feet in ovation. Tears flowed freely. Despite our age, despite our conservatism, despite our many shortcomings, ours is an industry fundamentally linked to the heroism and daring which are at the heart of what it means to be American. The men and women of the aerospace industry have not forgotten what it means to Dare Greatly, and they are ready to answer the call.

More recently, on Space Day, May 2, 2002 I had the opportunity to visit with the young children of Stratmoor Elementary School, just outside Fort Carson in Colorado Springs. Such visits are very uplifting, and I highly recommend that every member of the Commission and its staff do the same. I went to the Stratmoor Space Day school assembly as the special guest to talk, of course, about space. I spoke for about one minute before the auditorium erupted in a pandemonium of earnest, eager questions about space. What is it like there? How does the earth look from space? What can you do there? How fast do you fly? What is it like to be weightless? When can I go? At the end of the question and answer period, we had barely scratched the surface. Our children understand what it means to dream and how important it is to have dreams. Almost without exception they are drawn to, and enthralled by, space.

The children at Stratmoor Elementary and the aerospace executives at the Salute to America’s Military Astronauts share a fundamental human connection to the cosmos. To seek to understand what awaits us among the stars, and to take risks, get messy, and make mistakes in the pursuit of this knowledge, is a fundamental part of what makes us human. Because of this, I remain a very strong optimist in spite of the difficulties we face today and the challenges that lie ahead. I do not regard space as the final frontier. It is the new and everlasting frontier, and the key to unlocking all the best that America has to offer for generations to come.



Contact: Steve Eisenhart, Vice President, Policy & Public Affairs


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