science and engineering students, and research is essential for recruiting and developing the long-term supply of competent workers necessary to implement NASA’s future programs.
Faculty research not only is fundamental to student training but also leads to the development of new technology and tools for future applications in space. Programs supporting critical scientific and technological expertise are highly desirable.
Hands-on experience for students is provided by suborbital programs, Explorer and other small spacecraft missions, and design competitions, all of which rely on continuing NASA support.
The Graduate Student Researchers Program supports the education and training of prospective NASA employees and deserves augmented support.
Undergraduate and graduate co-op student programs are particularly effective in giving students early hands-on experience and in exposing students and NASA to each other to help enable sound career choices and hiring decisions.
Recommendation 5: Support university programs and provide hands-on opportunities at the college level.
The committee recommends that NASA make workforce-related programs such as the Graduate Student Researchers Program and co-op programs a high priority within its education budget. NASA should also invest in the future workforce by partnering with universities to provide hands-on experiences for students and opportunities for fundamental scientific and engineering research specific to NASA’s needs. These experiences should include significant numbers of opportunities to participate in all aspects of suborbital and Explorer-class flight programs and in research fellowships and co-op student assignments.
Finding 6: Although NASA’s primary role is not education or outreach, improved support of the higher-education community and of young professionals is critical to maintaining a sufficiently talented workforce. Involvement in providing development and educational opportunities, especially hands-on flight and vehicle development opportunities, will pay future dividends not only by encouraging larger numbers of talented students to enter the field, but also by improving the abilities of incoming employees. Indeed, a failure to invest in today’s students and young professionals will ultimately lead to a crisis when that generation is expected to assume the mantle of leadership within the U.S. aerospace community.
Recommendation 6: Support involvement in suborbital programs and nontraditional approaches to developing skills.
The committee recommends that NASA increase its investment in proven programs such as sounding rocket launches, aircraft-based research, and high-altitude balloon campaigns, which provide ample opportunities for hands-on flight development experience at a relatively low cost of failure.
Rather than viewing sounding rockets, aircraft-based research, and balloon programs simply as low-cost, competed, scientific missions, NASA should also recognize as an equal factor in the criteria for their selection their ability to provide valuable hands-on experience for its younger workers and should investigate the possibility of funding such programs through its education budget.
In addition, NASA should take advantage of nontraditional institutions and approaches both to inspire and to train potential future employees. Investment in programs such as Centennial Challenge prizes and other innovative methods has the potential to pay benefits many times greater than their cost, by simultaneously increasing NASA’s public visibility, training a new generation of workers, and pushing the technology envelope.
Strategic planning for workforce issues is difficult because budget and program decisions often have major impacts on the workforce that make strategic planning irrelevant. The committee heard from industry representatives who stated that NASA’s ability to attract junior-level personnel and retain senior personnel will be heavily influenced by perceptions about how compelling and stably funded the Vision for Space Exploration is. The committee thus believes that NASA must adopt policies that, while relatively inexpensive, can have a longer-term impact on its ability to obtain the highest-quality personnel.