The Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) announced by President George W. Bush in 2004 sets NASA and the nation on a bold path to return to the Moon and one day put a human on Mars.1 The long-term endeavor represented by the VSE is, however, subject to the constraints imposed by annual funding. Given that the VSE may take tens of years to implement, a significant issue is whether NASA and the United States will have the workforce needed to achieve that vision. The issues range from short-term concerns about the current workforce’s skills for overseeing the development of new spacecraft and launch vehicles for the VSE to long-term issues regarding the training, recruiting, and retaining of scientists and engineers in-house as well as in industry and academia.
Asked to explore science and technology (S&T) workforce needs to achieve the nation’s long-term space exploration vision (see Appendix B for the full statement of task), the Committee on Meeting the Workforce Needs for the National Vision for Space Exploration concluded that in the short term, NASA does not possess the requisite in-house personnel with the experience in human spaceflight systems development needed to implement the VSE. But the committee acknowledges that NASA is cognizant of this fact and has taken steps to correct it, primarily by seeking to recruit highly skilled personnel from outside NASA, including persons from industry and retirees.
For the long term, NASA has to ask if it is attracting and developing the talent it will need to execute a mission to return to the Moon, and the agency must identify what it needs to do to attract and develop a world-class workforce to explore other worlds. A major challenge for NASA is reorienting its human spaceflight workforce from the operation of current vehicles to the development of new vehicles at least throughout the next decade, as well as starting operations with new rockets and new spacecraft.
NASA’s April 2006 Workforce Strategy discussed agency workforce competency trends, identifying an increased need for personnel in five skill areas through 2009.2 These include 150-200 full-time employees in program/project management, 100-150 in systems engineering and integration engineering, and 200-240 in mission operations—numbers driven primarily by the establishment of the Constellation program.3 At the time NASA
The Vision for Space Exploration initiative was announced by President George W. Bush on January 14, 2004, and is outlined in The Vision for Space Exploration, NP-2004-01-334-HQ, NASA, Washington, D.C., 2004.
NASA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration Workforce Strategy, April 2006, pp. 15-16, available at http://nasapeople.nasa.gov/HCM/WorkforceStrategy.pdf.
NASA’s Constellation program includes development of the Orion spacecraft, the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles, and the lunar lander required to return Americans to the Moon. NASA has begun initial development of the Orion and the Ares I, with the goal of conducting the first piloted Orion launch by the middle of the next decade.
established those requirements, the agency had a total of approximately 1650 persons in these categories involved in other projects. The committee concluded that although many of the employees required in the mission operations category could be transitioned from the Space Shuttle program, many of the 250-350 full-time employees needed in the program/project management and systems engineering and integration engineering competencies are unlikely to currently reside in the agency and will have to be acquired from industry. NASA last had substantial in-house involvement in human spaceflight systems engineering in the 1970s, during the design phase of the Space Shuttle program, and the people skilled in human spaceflight are now likely to exist only in industry.
Although human and robotic systems are distinct, they do share many management and engineering process as well as system technical characteristics. Given that the bulk of the development activities over the past 10 years have been in robotic spacecraft, NASA needs to leverage the robotic spacecraft workforce skill development opportunities to meet some of the human spaceflight program development skill needs. The committee believes that systems engineering methodology and technical skills acquired from complex robotic spacecraft development can serve as an important base for the transition to systems engineering of human spacecraft.
A problem faced by the committee was a lack of data, as well as differing interpretations of future requirements for certain skills and an absence of information correlating levels of expertise required with the numbers of employees anticipated to be needed. Based on available demographic data, however, the committee concluded that, in the broadest sense, there is no looming national shortage of skilled scientists and engineers to implement the VSE over the long term. For example, the committee saw no evidence of a downturn in the national supply of new talent in aerospace engineering and space sciences. The supply of and the demand for new aerospace workers appear to be relatively well matched at present, as evidenced in part by the fact that salaries in aerospace engineering are not increasing sharply relative to those in other fields.4 Although the committee acknowledges the difficulties in predicting future demand for particular labor skills, it notes that past predictions of substantially increased demand for aerospace workers have not been borne out in reality. However, the committee also notes that both NASA and the aerospace industry employ engineers from many different fields besides aerospace engineering, such as electrical engineering and mechanical engineering, making a comparison of supply and demand for NASA more complicated than it would at first appear.
Much of the workforce on which NASA has historically relied, and will continue to rely, exists outside the agency: Most of the engineers who work on NASA projects are in industry, and most of the scientists are at universities. Retaining the proper numbers of each component of the broader aerospace workforce poses fundamentally different challenges. For example, engineers in industry generally have to rely less on NASA for the long-term financial stability of their projects than do scientists in universities, who often cannot move to military or commercial projects if NASA’s support for their work ends. Science talent might be lost and not readily regained even a few years later if NASA withdraws support for scientific research even for a limited period and scientists leave the field or are unwilling to return to NASA-sponsored work for which funding has proven unstable in the past. Thus, the policies that NASA pursues to sustain the workforce outside the agency will, and must, be different for scientists and engineers.
Furthermore, because NASA represents only a fraction of the overall aerospace workforce, the agency’s current workforce and its potential workforce are affected by numerous other government agencies, industry, and academia. In some cases, NASA must compete directly with these organizations for appropriately skilled workers. The committee therefore concluded that some method of coordinating overall strategies concerning aerospace workforce issues between related institutions, such as NASA and the Department of Defense, would be valuable.
The agency also has to address the retention and development of NASA’s in-house workforce. NASA’s policies for ensuring sufficient in-house talent will possibly diverge from those it pursues for maintaining and accessing the external workforce.
In considering these issues, the committee sought in particular to identify requirements common to both the scientific and the engineering talent needed within as well as from outside the agency. Ultimately, the committee concluded that the salient requirement was the need for junior-level members of the workforce—including current
and potential employees—to gain hands-on experience that would satisfy one of the perennial issues facing the agency: the need for highly skilled program/project managers and systems engineers.
In addition, the committee noted that over approximately the past decade and a half, the average age of NASA’s workers has marched steadily upward, and the agency now has a relatively low number of younger workers to assume future leadership roles in NASA as older workers retire. If it does nothing to achieve a better age distribution across its overall internal workforce, NASA will suffer a gap not only in technical leadership, but also in overall technical experience, especially if the development dates for key VSE components slip and highly skilled workers with experience in the Space Shuttle program retire. The committee concluded that if NASA is to avoid a long-term shortage of the required in-house technical expertise in human spaceflight systems and other areas, it will have to adopt a strategy to address potential long-term shortfalls.
Fortunately, NASA does have programs and methods currently available for meeting its workforce needs. These include, but are not limited to, legislative authority to enhance recruitment of workers with the required skills, internal training programs such as the intramural Academy of Program/Project and Engineering Leadership (APPEL; focused primarily on engineers), and extramural programs such as the Graduate Student Researchers Program (GSRP; focused currently on scientists). Although the committee highlights these specific programs, there are also others by which the agency trains current and potential members of its workforce. However, the committee found that many of these programs have atrophied over time and require revitalization and restructuring. In the case of GSRP, for example, NASA sponsors fellowships with award amounts that are significantly smaller than those provided by other government agencies, placing NASA at a competitive disadvantage.5 The committee also noted with alarm that shortly before it completed its work, NASA headquarters restricted its GSRP for budgetary reasons to accept only returning applicants, not new applicants. The amount of money required to fix these problems is not large. The committee believes that, in some cases, adding to the selection criteria for small science projects a consideration of their contributions to the training of students and junior-level professionals would improve NASA’s ability to recruit, train, and retain a skilled workforce.
The GSRP has allowed NASA to develop close ties with universities in the sciences. However, similar opportunities in engineering are far more limited. In addition, NASA has had a strong relationship with university faculty and their students as members of space science teams in technology development, mission planning, small-mission development, and mission operations. But there have been fewer close interactions in engineering and human spaceflight. In the committee’s view, NASA could benefit significantly by expanding to the engineering disciplines its approaches to establishing relationships in the sciences at the university level.
NASA already spends a significant amount of money—over $162 million in fiscal year 2006—on education. But much of this funding is congressionally earmarked for kindergarten through grade 12 and public education programs (such as science centers and museums) that do not directly assist the agency in developing the specific workforce that NASA requires.
The committee believes that training students to design and build satellites and satellite instruments, gain hands-on experience with the unique demands of satellite and spacecraft systems environments and operations, and acquire early knowledge of systems engineering techniques is an extremely important investment for NASA to make. NASA needs to play a role in training the potential workforce in the skills that are unique to the work the agency conducts (see Figures ES.1 and ES.2). If NASA does not nurture and train its own potential workforce, there is no guarantee that any other government agency or private entity will do so, nor that the agency will receive the high-quality personnel that it requires to achieve the ambitious goals of returning humans to the Moon and eventually sending them to Mars.
The committee emphasizes further that when evaluating its future workforce requirements, NASA has to consider not only programs for students, but also training opportunities for its current employees. NASA’s training programs at the agency’s various field centers, which are focused on NASA’s civil service talent, require support to
prevent the agency’s internal skill base from withering. Furthermore, NASA faces the risk that, if it fails to nurture its own internal workforce, skilled personnel will be attracted to other government agencies and industry.
Finally, the committee notes that not only is the contemporary workforce more fluid than it once was, but there are also new opportunities and organizations that might play a valuable role in attracting, training, and developing the workforce. These include the emerging entrepreneurial space sector, often called the “alt-space” or “new space” sector. Although to date NASA has looked at these organizations in terms of acquisition of capabilities and services (such as the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contracts), they also offer an opportunity for tapping and developing new workforce resources.
The committee reached its conclusions after benefiting from input from public meetings at which it heard from representatives from NASA, the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the aerospace industry, and university science and engineering schools and from analysis of documents from NASA and other organizations. The committee concluded that NASA has done much commendable work on understanding the problems it faces in the workforce arena but still has much left to do, both in understanding its requirements and in ensuring its support for programs that can fulfill them. After reviewing NASA’s own
workforce analyses and plans and reviewing available data, the committee developed the following specific findings and recommendations.
Finding 1: NASA has undertaken a commendable top-down (i.e., headquarters-directed) analysis of current agency needs and the skill levels of its current workforce that the committee believes is an excellent first step. But although NASA has considered workforce needs for the agency as a whole, it has not yet projected its requirements for future hiring in terms of (1) the numbers and specific skill sets of workers expected to be needed by each NASA center over time and (2) the timeframes for hiring based on anticipated retirements of the present workforce. The committee believes that understanding future hiring requirements will depend on an accurate, detailed assessment of the skills, VSE-related development capabilities, and expected attrition of the workforce for each center.
Recommendation 1: Collect detailed data on NASA workforce requirements.
The committee recommends that NASA collect detailed data on and develop accurate assessments of the capabilities possessed by the current workforce and required for the future S&T workforce.
Because each NASA center has unique mission requirements and the mobility of personnel between centers is limited, NASA should complete a center-developed, bottom-up assessment of the current skills, experience levels, and projected attrition of the workforce for each individual NASA center.
NASA should use the data obtained from such assessments to develop a model for projecting future NASA priorities for VSE skill development and hiring by competencies, experience levels, and centers, as well as a model for the best mix of skill development conducted within NASA versus within industry.
NASA should translate identified workforce needs from competencies and experience levels into specific positions to be implemented at individual centers at specific points in time.
NASA should assess whether the skill levels of in-house scientists at each field center are appropriate to fulfilling that center’s scientific leadership and service responsibilities and should ensure that appropriate efforts are made to maintain the scientific competency and currency of each center’s scientific workforce.
NASA should ensure that hiring constraints—such as pay levels, personnel ceilings, and ability to recruit suitable candidates—guide make-or-buy decisions about how staffing needs will be met.
NASA should ensure that appropriate workforce strategies—including providing training for staff (e.g., through the NASA Academy of Program/Project and Engineering Leadership program), contracting out work to industry and academia, facilitating exchange programs, and hiring temporary contract and term employees—are applied at each center.
The committee believes that it is premature to recommend a particular mix of strategies for obtaining the desired worker skill mix until NASA fully defines its staffing needs.
Finding 2: In the short term, NASA has too few program/project managers and systems engineers with the requisite experience in human spaceflight systems development to successfully oversee VSE projects. Given the lack of detailed data on NASA’s near-term workforce skills and needs as well as uncertainties over NASA’s budget, the committee did not attempt to assess the likely success of NASA’s planned steps to address near-term workforce problems.
Recommendation 2: Hire and retain younger workers within NASA.
The committee recommends that NASA implement a long-term strategy for hiring a steady supply of younger workers and subsequently retaining those workers as they rise to senior management positions so that a balanced distribution of age and skill is maintained throughout the agency’s entire workforce.
NASA should take full advantage of the NASA Flexibility Act of 2004, which was passed to facilitate the agency’s recruitment of employees from industry. NASA has already utilized the act to a considerable extent, and the committee encourages the agency to continue to do so, as well as to inform Congress of any additional hiring flexibility that is required.
NASA, working with Congress and the executive branch, should develop solutions to legal problems that limit the flow of senior and highly skilled employees from industry to NASA even when such employees are willing to accept lower salaries. Issues regarding shareholding, pensions, and perceived or actual conflicts of interest severely hamper personnel exchanges between industry and NASA. These problems stem from policy issues that cannot be resolved by NASA alone but instead require action by Congress and the executive branch working in concert with NASA.
Finding 3: NASA’s workforce requirements and challenges cannot be considered in isolation from those of other government and industry organizations. NASA is part of an aerospace workforce ecosystem in which the health and needs of one organization or sector can affect another. Thus, NASA’s workforce issues require the intervention and assistance of higher-level government organizations such as the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President.
Recommendation 3: Ensure a coordinated national strategy for aerospace workforce development among relevant institutions.
The committee recommends that representatives from relevant government agencies, the aerospace industry, including the emerging private sector, and the academic community work together to develop a coordinated national strategy to ensure an effective aerospace workforce ecosystem.
Finding 4: There is a longstanding, widely recognized requirement for more highly skilled program/project managers and systems engineers who have acquired substantial experience in space systems development. Although the need exists across all of NASA and the aerospace industry, it seems particularly acute for human spaceflight systems because of the long periods between initiation of new programs (i.e., the Space Shuttle program in the 1970s and the Constellation program 30 years later). NASA training programs are addressing some of the agency’s requirements in this experience base, but the current requirement for a strong base of highly skilled program/project management and systems engineering personnel, and limited opportunities for junior specialists to gain hands-on space project experience, remain impediments to NASA’s ability to successfully carry out VSE programs and projects.
Recommendation 4: Provide hands-on training opportunities for NASA workers.
The committee recommends that NASA place a high priority on recruiting, training, and retaining skilled program/project managers and systems engineers and that it provide the hands-on training and development opportunities for younger and junior personnel required to establish and maintain the necessary capabilities in these disciplines. Specific and immediate actions to be taken by NASA and other parts of the federal government include the following:
In establishing its strategy for meeting VSE systems engineering needs, NASA should determine the right balance between in-house and out-of-house work and contractor roles and responsibilities, including the use of support service contractors.
NASA should continue and also expand its current employee training programs such as those being conducted by the Academy of Program/Project and Engineering Leadership (APPEL). To facilitate the development of key systems engineering and project management skills, NASA should increase the number of opportunities for entry-level employees to be involved in hands-on flight and end-to-end development programs. A variety of programs—including those involving balloons, sounding rockets, aircraft-based research, small satellites, and so on—can be used to give these employees critical experience relatively early in their careers and allow them to contribute as systems engineers and program managers more quickly.
Finding 5: NASA relies on a highly trained technical workforce to achieve its goals and has long accepted a responsibility for supporting the training of those who are potential employees. In recent years, however, training for students has been less well supported by NASA. A robust and stable commitment to creating opportunities at the university level for experience in hands-on flight mission development, graduate research fellowships for
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.