1
Introduction

Created in an era of Cold War competition between the superpowers, NASA assumed a highly symbolic role as a demonstration of overall U.S. scientific and technological capability. It is thus not surprising that the health of the U.S. scientific and technological workforce has been an important theme throughout the history of the U.S. space program. In its early years, NASA officials took pride in their agency’s “can do” style and the ability of its employees and those of the NASA’s private sector partners to accept and succeed at some of the most challenging tasks ever undertaken. The excitement of space exploration in the 1960s invigorated the U.S. technological workforce, drawing young people to study and eventually pursue careers in science, engineering, and mathematics.

As NASA has matured and evolved, however, it has played a smaller role in drawing people into scientific and technical careers. Instead, an issue of increasing concern is the agency’s ability to compete with other scientific and technical agencies and industries to acquire the workforce essential to achieving the nation’s goals for future space exploration and exploitation. As the cadre of people entering the space community in the 1960s reaches retirement age, it is imperative to ask whether and how these experts will be succeeded by new generations of experts.

Recurring concern about this issue has been evident at NASA. For instance, in December 1999, NASA’s then-administrator Daniel Goldin stated that the retirement of NASA’s workforce was an “overwhelming issue” that would overshadow the agency’s future for the next 5 to 10 years.1 More recently, NASA’s current administrator Michael 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.”2

Outside NASA, other organizations have referred to a “crisis” in the aerospace industry.3 The Government Accountability Office reported in early 2003 that

NASA is facing shortages in its workforce, which could likely worsen as the workforce continues to age and the pipeline of talent shrinks. This dilemma is more pronounced among areas crucial to NASA’s ability to perform its mission, such as engineering, science, and information technology.4

1

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

2

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

3

Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry, Final Report of the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry, 2002. Available from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington, D.C.

4

“Performance and Accountability Series: National Aeronautics and Space Administration,” Government Accountability Office report GOA-03-114, January 2003; http://www.gao.gov/pas/2003/d03114high.pdf.



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Building a Better NASA Workforce: Meeting the Workforce Needs for the National Vision for Space Exploration 1 Introduction Created in an era of Cold War competition between the superpowers, NASA assumed a highly symbolic role as a demonstration of overall U.S. scientific and technological capability. It is thus not surprising that the health of the U.S. scientific and technological workforce has been an important theme throughout the history of the U.S. space program. In its early years, NASA officials took pride in their agency’s “can do” style and the ability of its employees and those of the NASA’s private sector partners to accept and succeed at some of the most challenging tasks ever undertaken. The excitement of space exploration in the 1960s invigorated the U.S. technological workforce, drawing young people to study and eventually pursue careers in science, engineering, and mathematics. As NASA has matured and evolved, however, it has played a smaller role in drawing people into scientific and technical careers. Instead, an issue of increasing concern is the agency’s ability to compete with other scientific and technical agencies and industries to acquire the workforce essential to achieving the nation’s goals for future space exploration and exploitation. As the cadre of people entering the space community in the 1960s reaches retirement age, it is imperative to ask whether and how these experts will be succeeded by new generations of experts. Recurring concern about this issue has been evident at NASA. For instance, in December 1999, NASA’s then-administrator Daniel Goldin stated that the retirement of NASA’s workforce was an “overwhelming issue” that would overshadow the agency’s future for the next 5 to 10 years.1 More recently, NASA’s current administrator Michael 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.”2 Outside NASA, other organizations have referred to a “crisis” in the aerospace industry.3 The Government Accountability Office reported in early 2003 that NASA is facing shortages in its workforce, which could likely worsen as the workforce continues to age and the pipeline of talent shrinks. This dilemma is more pronounced among areas crucial to NASA’s ability to perform its mission, such as engineering, science, and information technology.4 1 See www.space.com/news/nasa_workforce_991215.html. 2 See www.nasa.gov/pdf/133896main_ESAS_rollout_press.pdf, p. 35. 3 Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry, Final Report of the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry, 2002. Available from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington, D.C. 4 “Performance and Accountability Series: National Aeronautics and Space Administration,” Government Accountability Office report GOA-03-114, January 2003; http://www.gao.gov/pas/2003/d03114high.pdf.

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Building a Better NASA Workforce: Meeting the Workforce Needs for the National Vision for Space Exploration Congress responded to these concerns by approving the NASA Flexibility Act of 2004.5 Among the act’s provisions was the expansion of NASA’s authority to offer employee recruitment and retention bonuses. The committee believes that this act has given NASA a valuable tool in recruiting and hiring workers with the necessary skills. It applauds the agency’s initial efforts in taking advantage of the act’s provisions and encourages NASA to utilize the act fully. However, the committee concluded that further congressional and executive branch involvement may be necessary, particularly to address the legal and ethical issues that accompany recruiting skilled personnel from industry. The committee believes that the general focus on the age of the NASA workforce and a looming “retirement crisis” tends to obscure more complex and subtle demographic issues. Although a massive and simultaneous wave of retirements among eligible employees would be a devastating blow to the agency, it is likely that NASA will continue to retain employees beyond retirement age and to engage the retiree community as consultants and mentors, as it has done in the past. The committee believes that the most relevant issue facing NASA’s workforce is not its age, but rather the number and distribution of skilled employees within the agency and the ability of the agency to ensure that it has, and will continue to have, an adequate supply of trained employees. The committee notes comments made before a House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee hearing in 2002 by NASA’s then-administrator Sean O’Keefe, who stated that although there were fewer hires in fiscal year 2001 than in the previous year, NASA needed almost twice as many recruitment bonuses to attract the desired recruits. “Even utilizing all the tools at hand, we are at a disadvantage when competing with the private sector,” he said.6 The workforce situation at NASA is highly fluid and complex. The agency is currently hiring very few new employees and has recently emerged from having excess employees—the so-called uncovered capacity problem. NASA does need to attract, train, and retain highly skilled personnel, but the committee believes that it is difficult to characterize the agency’s needs in aggregate numbers and that only a detailed examination of workforce needs can indicate where the problems lie. The context for NASA’s future workforce was sharpened in January 2004 when President George W. Bush announced the new national Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) with the fundamental goal “to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program” that would involve human and robotic exploration of space, including sending humans back to the Moon and later to Mars.7 Implementation of this policy has added new clarity to the direction and potential scope of the nation’s human spaceflight program, and consequently has provided the basis for a more precise assessment of future space program workforce needs. In September 2005, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin unveiled the agency’s plan for the human lunar exploration program, making clear that one of his goals was to avoid losing engineering experience and personnel during the transition from the Shuttle and Space Station era to the lunar exploration era. Congress was also concerned about NASA’s workforce and in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 directed NASA to develop “a human capital strategy to ensure that NASA has a workforce of the appropriate size and with the appropriate skills to carry out the programs of NASA.”8 The National Space Policy released by the White House in early October 2006 also emphasized the importance of a skilled workforce. The policy stated: Sustained excellence in space-related science, engineering, acquisition, and operational disciplines is vital to the future of U.S. space capabilities. Departments and agencies that conduct space related activities shall establish standards and implement activities to develop and maintain highly skilled, experienced, and motivated space professionals within their workforce.9 5 S. 610, “The NASA Flexibility Act of 2004,” Public Law No. 108-201. 6 Testimony by Sean O’Keefe before House Science Committee Hearing on NASA’s Work Force, July 18, 2002. 7 National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), The Vision for Space Exploration, NP-2004-01-334-HQ, NASA, Washington, D.C., 2004. 8 House Report 109-173, NASA Authorization Act of 2005. 9 See U.S. National Space Policy, 2006, which can be found at the Office of Science and Technology Policy Web site, http://www.ostp.gov/html/US%20National%20Space%20Policy.pdf.

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Building a Better NASA Workforce: Meeting the Workforce Needs for the National Vision for Space Exploration WORKFORCE ISSUES FOR THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT The modern U.S. scientific and technical enterprise forged during World War II is based on a triangular cooperative working relationship among government institutions, industry, and academia. NASA has relied on this relationship since its creation in 1958. For example, university researchers under NASA sponsorship perform most of the scientific analysis of the data returned from NASA missions, and most of the spacecraft are built by industry. Very few of these activities are actually conducted by NASA employees, whose primary focus is managing and overseeing these projects and preparing the agency’s budget. Each element of the triad has different roles and challenges associated with its workforce. 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 a major 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 as well as both generating and reporting on the majority of the scientific results obtained from current and past 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, industry, and universities all have played critical roles in providing on-the-job training for space program professionals. There is no shortage of relevant literature on the problems facing the federal government concerning the scientific and engineering workforce. Several studies have focused on a specific sector or government agency. For example, a 2001 Booz Allen Hamilton study for the National Reconnaissance Office on the military space industrial base echoed the statements of NASA administrators, warning that the average age of the space workforce was increasing.10 More recently, the military services have experienced serious problems in the acquisition of several DOD space systems, problems blamed partly on funding instability and overly ambitious requirements, but also on management inadequacies caused by poorly trained or unqualified personnel. 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 have focused even more narrowly on specific aspects of government acquisition. The committee notes that examples of technical workforce shortages exist outside the United States as well. For instance, a RAND Corporation study of the United Kingdom’s shipbuilding and submarine manufacturing base identified the dangers in allowing specific areas of expertise and workers’ skill sets to atrophy and disappear, noting that reconstituting lost capabilities later may be very expensive, and recommending that procurement be staggered so as to preserve this expertise.11 As several surveys of the overall science and engineering workforce have demonstrated, fields such as aerospace engineering that once were highly attractive to technically trained college students have now been supplanted by other fields, such as bioengineering. 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 attractive alternatives in other fields, when other employers such as the DOD are competing to draw from the same pool of potential employees, and when a large infusion of new funding into the space program is not widely anticipated. NASA can learn from studies conducted of other government agencies, and even non-U.S. agencies such as the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy. But perhaps the most important lesson for NASA is that it is competing with other government agencies and private industries that are themselves concerned about attracting and retaining highly skilled personnel. NASA officials cannot expect that the uniqueness and presumed excitement of its mission will 10 Gen. Thomas S. Moorman, Jr., U.S. Air Force (retired), testimony before the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, May 15, 2001. 11 John F. Schank, Jessie Riposo, John Birkler and James Chiesa, Sustaining Design and Production Resources: The United Kingdom’s Nuclear Submarine Industrial Base, Vol. 1, The RAND Corporation, 2005.

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Building a Better NASA Workforce: Meeting the Workforce Needs for the National Vision for Space Exploration FIGURE 1.1 The P3/P4 truss segment of the International Space Station (ISS) being prepared for launch in summer 2006. Although it was a massive development program, system engineering and integration for the ISS were done primarily by a prime contractor, not NASA personnel. SOURCE: Courtesy of Troy Crider, NASA. be sufficient to ensure that it will acquire the quality workforce that it needs. NASA will have to develop specific solutions tailored to its own requirements. THE SCOPE OF NASA’S NEW ACTIVITIES President Bush’s civil space exploration policy, announced in January 2004, calls for human lunar missions as early as 2015 but no later than 2020. Although neither the president nor NASA explicitly endorsed a specific timeline for a human Mars landing, the new policy does embrace human missions to Mars as an eventual goal after the return to the Moon, and NASA’s leadership has stated that a human Mars mission could occur sometime in the 2020s. As a consequence of this redirected U.S. space policy, NASA has been restructured to include four major program offices: the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate and the Science Mission Directorate, with overlapping responsibilities for implementing the VSE; 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. 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 2006.12 The space exploration approach outlined requires a new Orion spacecraft (formerly the Crew Exploration Vehicle) for ferrying humans into space, a lunar surface access module for landing astronauts on the Moon, and two new rocket vehicles for carrying these spacecraft into space. The rocket vehicles 12 National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Exploration Systems Architecture Study Final Report, NASA, Washington, D.C., 2005.

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Building a Better NASA Workforce: Meeting the Workforce Needs for the National Vision for Space Exploration FIGURE 1.2 Technicians replacing space shuttle tiles. NASA will face a significant challenge in transitioning its workforce from shuttle operations to development of new space vehicles and then eventually back to operations. SOURCE: Courtesy of NASA. will be the Ares I (formerly the Crew Launch Vehicle) and the Ares V heavy-lift launch vehicle. Both will rely on Space Shuttle components as well as rocket engines from other launch vehicles. Although the specifics of the lunar landing architecture are subject to change, development of these new spacecraft and launch vehicles clearly presents a technical challenge that will require significant systems integration expertise. NASA last undertook parallel development of multiple launch vehicles and spacecraft during the 1960s and of a new human spacecraft requiring substantial in-house expertise when it developed the Space Shuttle in the 1970s. The International Space Station utilized a prime contractor as the systems engineering and integration lead and provided a limited number of development systems engineering and program management learning opportunities for the NASA workforce (Figure 1.1). Now the agency is undertaking development of the Orion and Ares I, and in a few years it will begin development of the Ares V and the lunar landing vehicle. As it begins work on the lunar outpost announced in December 2006, NASA will have to undertake further developments such as habitation modules on the Moon and unpressurized and pressurized lunar rovers. Clearly these new projects will require that NASA have significant in-house expertise to manage them (Figure 1.2). 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.13 NASA is pursuing the development of two precursor 13 Lunar science is currently the subject of an ongoing NRC study (see The Scientific Context for Exploration of the Moon: Interim Report, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2006) and was also addressed by a spring 2007 workshop sponsored by the NASA Advisory Council. In addition, in December 2006 NASA released the preliminary results of its lunar architecture study and has begun work on a lunar science architecture study as well.

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Building a Better NASA Workforce: Meeting the Workforce Needs for the National Vision for Space Exploration robotic lunar spacecraft and continuing its robotic exploration of Mars. Expert personnel will also be needed to manage these efforts and interpret the data collected. Other major aspects of NASA’s overall space program that are not exclusively part of the VSE may affect achievement of the VSE in various ways. These include the agency’s space science program, encompassing planetary science, Earth sciences, heliophysics, and astrophysics. The NASA administrator, and the Bush administration’s new national space policy, have indicated 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 addition to the human space program. In the past NASA has also supported a broadly based research program in the physical and biological sciences, microgravity science, and aeronautics, but recently the microgravity programs have been scaled back and focused more narrowly on (primarily biomedical) areas that NASA views as directly supporting nearer-term aspects of the VSE.14 Aeronautics has also experienced significant budget reductions. In statements from numerous experts outside NASA during its January 2006 workshop, briefings during its meetings in 2006, and in the report of NASA’s Systems Engineering and Institutional Transition Team (SEITT), the committee heard that, in the short term, the agency lacks the required in-house talent to successfully oversee VSE projects. In particular, it lacks several hundred skilled personnel in the area of program/project management and systems engineering.15 The committee believes that NASA recognizes this shortfall and has taken some steps to correct it, such as implementation of the “smart buyer” program to recruit retired employees with Space Shuttle development experience. The committee regards as limited its own ability to provide recommendations to solve the short-term problem of NASA’s current lack of required in-house expertise. APPROACH TAKEN IN THIS STUDY The committee defines the workforce needed to accomplish the Vision for Space Exploration in its broadest sense. That is, to succeed in accomplishing the VSE’s goals, 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. This national civil space workforce is highly geographically dispersed, as are NASA’s own field centers. Given the involvement of industry and universities, science and technology workers who will contribute to the VSE effort will be found in every state in the Union. NASA states that it will conduct a balanced program that seeks to support many different efforts, but the agency is highly constrained by the budget that Congress grants it, as well as by expectations placed on NASA by the new space exploration policy. The committee therefore examined the issue of science staffing as well as engineering staffing and, at the request of Scott Pace, the NASA associate administrator for program assessment and evaluation, also discussed activities currently conducted by NASA that could perhaps be phased out. The committee assumed that NASA’s budget will remain relatively flat over the life of the VSE and that the VSE will be pursued over the period that NASA intends. NASA currently has a budget-driven goal of reducing the agency’s total workforce by 2,000 employees between 2006 and 2011. Although the committee appreciates NASA’s need to operate within a constrained budget, it is concerned that such substantial reductions could result in the agency losing needed trained personnel. Without a carefully planned strategy for determining the agency’s personnel needs and how it will achieve them, NASA could inflict damage on itself during this reduction. The chapters that follow examine the basis for these concerns in more detail. 14 The NASA Authorization Act of 2005 calls for a balanced scientific program that includes all of the research disciplines cited here, but a 2006 NRC report, Assessment of Balance in NASA’s Science Programs (The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.), calls into question whether NASA’s current plans can sustain an overall program that is balanced and healthy. 15 NASA, Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation, Systems Engineering and Institutional Transitions Study, Final Report, April 5, 2006.