1
Introduction and Background

On September 19, 2005, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin held a press conference at which he unveiled the agency’s plan for the human lunar exploration program. Griffin stated that “twenty-five percent of NASA’s workforce reaches retirement age in the next five years and it will not be different in our contractor community.”1 Griffin was not the first NASA administrator to warn of this problem. NASA has been facing the impending retirement of a significant percentage of its workforce for many years now. For instance, in December 1999, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin stated that the retirement of NASA’s workforce was an “overwhelming issue” that would overshadow the agency’s outlook for the next 5 to 10 years.2

This problem may not be as pressing as it would seem, because the agency has traditionally benefited from having employees who stay at the agency beyond their retirement eligibility date. But NASA is not alone in being concerned about its workforce. Over the past several years there have been numerous studies and investigations into the composition of the science and technology personnel base to meet larger U.S. needs such as national security and international economic competitiveness. In fact, this subject has received frequent attention ever since the launch of Sputnik in October 1957. At numerous times over the past five decades, high-level study groups, including special presidential commissions, have warned of impending problems and recommended various solutions. Despite their frequent emphasis on the dire consequences of inaction, their warnings have not always been heeded, but when they have been, the typical response by the federal government has been to increase funding for education at multiple levels with the goal of producing more scientists and engineers.

This issue has reemerged on the national stage in the context of U.S. technological and economic competitiveness, primarily with respect to the emerging economies of China and India. President George W. Bush recently unveiled the American Competitiveness Initiative, a 10-year, $136 billion plan to double research spending on the physical sciences, enact a permanent research and development tax credit, and train more scientists and engineers. This initiative appears to have been influenced, in part, by a 2005 National Academies’ report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm.3 That report made four basic recommendations focusing on K-12 education, research, higher education, and economic policy.

In general, the current discussion of U.S. high-technology workforce needs can be divided into two broad categories, higher-level “macro” studies of the overall subject, such as the Gathering Storm report, and more focused, industry or area-specific studies. For instance, high-technology agencies such as the Department of Defense (DOD) have also sponsored recent studies focused on specific parts of the U.S. industrial base, such as aircraft carrier production and weapons system acquisition. These area-specific studies are of greater applicability to NASA.

For example, in 2001, Booz Allen Hamilton conducted a study for the National Reconnaissance Office on the military space industrial base that echoed the statements of NASA administrators by

1  

See <www.nasa.gov/pdf/133896main_ESAS_rollout_press.pdf>, p. 35.

2  

See <www.space.com/news/nasa_workforce_991215.html>.

3  

National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, Executive Summary [prepublication], The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2005. Available at <darwin.nap.edu/execsumm_pdf/11463.pdf>.



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Issues Affecting the Future of the U.S. Space Science and Engineering Workforce: Interim Report 1 Introduction and Background On September 19, 2005, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin held a press conference at which he unveiled the agency’s plan for the human lunar exploration program. Griffin stated that “twenty-five percent of NASA’s workforce reaches retirement age in the next five years and it will not be different in our contractor community.”1 Griffin was not the first NASA administrator to warn of this problem. NASA has been facing the impending retirement of a significant percentage of its workforce for many years now. For instance, in December 1999, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin stated that the retirement of NASA’s workforce was an “overwhelming issue” that would overshadow the agency’s outlook for the next 5 to 10 years.2 This problem may not be as pressing as it would seem, because the agency has traditionally benefited from having employees who stay at the agency beyond their retirement eligibility date. But NASA is not alone in being concerned about its workforce. Over the past several years there have been numerous studies and investigations into the composition of the science and technology personnel base to meet larger U.S. needs such as national security and international economic competitiveness. In fact, this subject has received frequent attention ever since the launch of Sputnik in October 1957. At numerous times over the past five decades, high-level study groups, including special presidential commissions, have warned of impending problems and recommended various solutions. Despite their frequent emphasis on the dire consequences of inaction, their warnings have not always been heeded, but when they have been, the typical response by the federal government has been to increase funding for education at multiple levels with the goal of producing more scientists and engineers. This issue has reemerged on the national stage in the context of U.S. technological and economic competitiveness, primarily with respect to the emerging economies of China and India. President George W. Bush recently unveiled the American Competitiveness Initiative, a 10-year, $136 billion plan to double research spending on the physical sciences, enact a permanent research and development tax credit, and train more scientists and engineers. This initiative appears to have been influenced, in part, by a 2005 National Academies’ report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm.3 That report made four basic recommendations focusing on K-12 education, research, higher education, and economic policy. In general, the current discussion of U.S. high-technology workforce needs can be divided into two broad categories, higher-level “macro” studies of the overall subject, such as the Gathering Storm report, and more focused, industry or area-specific studies. For instance, high-technology agencies such as the Department of Defense (DOD) have also sponsored recent studies focused on specific parts of the U.S. industrial base, such as aircraft carrier production and weapons system acquisition. These area-specific studies are of greater applicability to NASA. For example, in 2001, Booz Allen Hamilton conducted a study for the National Reconnaissance Office on the military space industrial base that echoed the statements of NASA administrators by 1   See <www.nasa.gov/pdf/133896main_ESAS_rollout_press.pdf>, p. 35. 2   See <www.space.com/news/nasa_workforce_991215.html>. 3   National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, Executive Summary [prepublication], The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2005. Available at <darwin.nap.edu/execsumm_pdf/11463.pdf>.

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Issues Affecting the Future of the U.S. Space Science and Engineering Workforce: Interim Report warning that the average age of the space workforce was increasing.4 More recently, the military services have experienced serious problems in the acquisition of several DOD space systems that have been blamed on management problems caused by poorly trained or unqualified personnel, funding instability, and overly ambitious requirements. Recent discussion in the DOD has raised the charge that the United States is currently suffering from a shortage of experienced and competently trained technical management personnel in a large number of areas, not simply in space programs. Other studies, such as those conducted by the RAND Corporation concerning the United Kingdom’s shipbuilding and submarine manufacturing base, have identified the dangers of allowing specific areas of expertise and workers’ skill sets to atrophy and disappear—reconstituting these capabilities later may be very expensive. The recommendations produced by the macro and area-specific studies may not always be compatible. The macro studies are generally focused on enlarging the overall base, whereas the area-specific studies sometimes recommend solutions that favor one part of the technical base over another, requiring favoring one field or government agency over another, or, at the very least, prioritizing responses within an agency. As several surveys of the overall S&E workforce have demonstrated, fields that were once highly attractive to technically-trained college students, such as aerospace engineering, have now been supplanted by other fields, such as software development and genetic engineering. One could argue that congressional action in recent years to double the National Institutes of Health budget has helped fuel the migration to biomedical and biotechnology fields in much the same way that the infusion of funding into NASA during the Apollo era fueled the moves to aerospace fields in the 1960s. One of NASA’s challenges will be to maintain and nurture its workforce at a time when there are more attractive alternatives in other fields and when a large infusion of new funding into the space program is not likely. THE VISION FOR SPACE EXPLORATION In January 2004, almost 1 year following the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and her crew, President Bush announced a new civil space policy that would refocus NASA’s broad range of research and engineering projects toward the human and robotic exploration of the Moon, Mars, and eventually other solar system bodies. This new vision for space exploration specified human lunar missions as early as 2015, but no later than 2020. Although neither the President nor NASA explicitly endorsed a specific time line for a human Mars landing, the vision does embrace human missions to Mars as an eventual goal after the return to the Moon. As a consequence of this redirected U.S. space policy, the NASA leadership has restructured the agency, which now includes the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate and Science Mission Directorate, with overlapping responsibilities for implementing the vision, as well as the Space Operations Mission Directorate, which is responsible for the space shuttle program and for assembly and operation of the International Space Station, and the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. NASA Administrator Griffin has stated that he has no plans to further restructure NASA. In fall 2005 NASA formally unveiled the results of its Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS), which outlined the overall engineering approach to achieving the lunar landing goal. The final version of the ESAS report was released in January 2006, and the NRC workforce committee was briefed on the results at the January 23-24, 2006, workshop.5 The ESAS report outlined a space exploration approach requiring a new crew exploration vehicle for ferrying humans into space, a lunar surface access module for landing astronauts on the Moon, and 4   Gen. Thomas S. Moorman, Jr., U.S. Air Force (retired), testimony before the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, May 15, 2001. 5   National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Exploration Systems Architecture Study Final Report, NASA, Washington, D.C., 2005.

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Issues Affecting the Future of the U.S. Space Science and Engineering Workforce: Interim Report two new rocket vehicles for carrying these vehicles into space. The rocket vehicles would be the crew launch vehicle and the heavy lift launch vehicle. Both would rely substantially on space shuttle components. Although the specifics of the lunar landing architecture are subject to change, development of these new spacecraft and launch vehicles clearly represents a technical development challenge and will require significant systems integration expertise. The ESAS report did not provide a rationale for or an outline of lunar science goals, but clearly lunar science will also receive significant new attention by the agency. NASA is also pursuing the development of two precursor robotic lunar spacecraft and continuing its robotic exploration of Mars. These efforts will also require competent personnel to manage them and interpret their data. NASA has other major aspects of its overall space program that are not exclusively part of the vision for space exploration but that may impact or interact with it in various ways. These include the agency’s broad space science program, encompassing not only planetary science but also Earth sciences, heliophysics,6 and astrophysics. The NASA administrator has noted that NASA is committed to a balanced program of exploration that includes research to understand Earth, the solar system, and the larger universe that extends well beyond the solar system. In the past NASA has also supported a broadly based research program in the physical and biological sciences in microgravity, but recently that program has been scaled back and focused more narrowly on (primarily biomedical) areas that NASA views as being in direct support of nearer-term aspects of the vision for space exploration. Similarly, NASA fostered and expanded the study of astrobiology in the 1990s, creating a base of expertise for the agency to draw on for its future science missions. But that program is also being scaled back. Finally, the agency still maintains an aeronautics research program which is currently undergoing substantial refocusing and redirection. The aeronautics program is beyond the scope of the committee’s charge. In addition to these recent developments, NASA Administrator Griffin has announced his intention to conduct more technical development work inside NASA, as opposed to relying on the private sector. Griffin has expressed concern that NASA’s internal technical skills have atrophied over time and need to be restored. THE NASA SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING ENTERPRISE The modern U.S. scientific and technical enterprise was forged during World War II and based on a triangular relationship between government institutions, industry, and academia. NASA has relied on this relationship since its creation in 1958. For instance, most scientific analysis of data returned from NASA missions is performed by university researchers under NASA sponsorship, and most spacecraft are built by industry. Very few of these activities are actually conducted by NASA employees. Each of these institutions has different roles and challenges associated with their respective workforces. Academia has a primary role in educating and supplying the workforce for NASA and industry, and hence has an interest in policy solutions that endorse educational funding increases. The academic sector not only plays the largest role in supplying the scientists and support staff to conceive, develop, and conduct the research studies in NASA’s science programs, but also conducts the advanced development of scientific instrument technologies for future science missions. Industry has been the major developer of space mission systems, and it shares responsibility with NASA for the operation of those systems. NASA has traditionally played a key role in the design and development of new technologies for human exploration and for space mission operations. NASA and industry and universities have played critical roles in providing on-the-job training for space program professionals. 6   Heliophysics involves the study of the Sun, the interplanetary medium from the Sun to the interface between the heliosphere and the interstellar medium, and interactions of the Sun and interplanetary medium with solar system objects. It was formerly called Sun-Earth Connections by NASA.

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Issues Affecting the Future of the U.S. Space Science and Engineering Workforce: Interim Report THE NASA WORKFORCE ENVIRONMENT The committee defines in its broadest sense the workforce needed to accomplish the vision for space exploration. That is, to succeed in accomplishing the goals of the vision the nation will need the best expertise and best efforts of workers not only inside NASA but also in NASA’s partner institutions in industry, academia, and other federal agencies. Consequently, the committee will need to examine all these sectors to address its charge. This national civil space workforce is highly geographically dispersed. NASA’s own field centers are spread across the country. When one considers the contributions from industry and universities, the locations of workers who will contribute to the effort will be found in every state in the Union. In recognition of this, NASA has created the Systems Engineering and Institutional Transition Team (SEITT), which is charged with making recommendations in four areas—human capital and workforce, organization and management, support requirements and contracts, and infrastructure to fulfill the agency’s requirements for the space shuttle, the International Space Station, and the exploration systems architecture. Some current statistics help to explain the state of the agency with regard to its civil service engineering workforce. According to the Office of Personnel Management, from 2001 to 2005 the number of engineers employed at NASA declined from 11,051 to 10,766. NASA hired only 411 new engineers in 2005, or approximately 3.8 percent. Of these only 6 were transfers from other agencies, indicating a lack of mobility within the government. During the same period, 749 engineers left the agency. At the time this report was written, the NASA jobs Web site showed openings for approximately 160 positions for an agency with nearly 11,000 engineers—a relatively small number of openings. NASA wages have been increasing and appear to be competitive. For example, from 2001 to 2005 engineering salaries rose from a mean of $80,195 to $97,998. These statistics demonstrate that the agency is currently contracting slightly, is eliminating engineering positions, and is not hiring many new people. Combined with other data that demonstrate a steadily increasing mean age of the workforce, it is clear that NASA is not simply suffering a supply problem, but is also experiencing changes in its workforce demographics as a result of agency policies and restrictions on its ability to hire and fire personnel.7 Although the committee was impressed and intrigued by what it heard at the workshop and at its second meeting, the committee’s overall conclusion was that substantial, high-fidelity demographic data on NASA’s existing workforce and future needs is still necessary but does not yet exist. Without it, the committee cannot draw meaningful conclusions about the agency’s ability to effectively meet the goals of the vision for space exploration. The committee awaits the completion of the SEITT study, currently scheduled for April 2006, to determine if sufficient data is available. At a time when the engineering architecture and budget for the vision have drawn intense scrutiny, and when large space development projects have run into schedule and financial trouble, the quality and skill mix of the agency’s workforce will play a major role in NASA’s ability to implement the vision, and they therefore deserve intense scrutiny as well. 7   See <www.fedscope.opm.gov/>.