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Space Flight: Increasingly, Gifted Individuals are Opting for the Private Sector Over NASA

Space Flight: Increasingly, Gifted Individuals are Opting for the Private Sector Over NASA

Illustration by Ellen Weinstein

Amy Hoffman doesn't realize she's tapping her boots underneath the table at Boondoggles, where she's having a last lunch with Clear Lake friends before skipping town. The boots are baby-blue Cavenders, ankle high and definitely out of season because it's the first week of July and her friends are sweating in T-shirts, cargo shorts and sandals. Hoffman is deep in conversation about her imminent move from her native Texas, the scramble to stake an apartment in a market riddled with scams and listings that don't even include refrigerators.

Hoffman (not her real name) grew up in Austin and spent the past three years working in Houston, where Boondoggles, with its spacious seating and encyclopedic beer selection, became a regular hangout for her engineering clique. She always ran into coworkers there after hours -- astronauts, too, on occasion. Hoffman recounts over pizza chips how those sightings invariably cause her to geek out intensely, yet internally. She's always tempted to corner an astronaut and say hi, but she gets how creepy that would be. A friend who has dropped by to see her off tells her she's going to be missed.

As a NASA engineering co-op student at Johnson Space Center, Hoffman trained in various divisions of the federal space agency to sign on eventually as a civil servant. She graduated from college this year after receiving a generous offer from NASA, doubly prestigious considering the substantial reductions in force hitting Johnson Space Center in recent months. She did have every intention of joining that force -- had actually accepted the offer, in fact -- when she received an invitation to visit a friend at his new job with rising commercial launch company SpaceX.

Hoffman took him up on the offer, flying out to Los Angeles in the spring for a private tour. Driving up to the SpaceX headquarters, she was struck by how unassuming it was, how small compared to NASA, how plain on the outside and rather like a warehouse.

As she walked through the complex, she was also surprised to find open work areas where NASA would have had endless hallways, offices and desks. Hoffman described SpaceX as resembling a giant workshop, a hive of activity in which employees stood working on nitty-gritty mechanical and electrical engineering. Everything in the shop was bound for space or was related to space. No one sat around talking to friends in the morning, "another level from what you see at NASA," she said. "They're very purpose-driven. It looked like every project was getting the attention it deserved."

Seeing SpaceX in production forced Hoffman to acknowledge NASA might not be the best fit for her. The tour reminded her of the many mentors who had gone into the commercial sector of the space industry in search of better pay and more say in the direction their employers take. She thought back to the attrition she saw firsthand at Johnson Space Center and how understaffed divisions struggled to maintain operations.

From 1993 to July of this year, the number of NASA civil servants declined by more than 8,000. In contrast, SpaceX has been on the rise since it was founded in 2002, now numbering upwards of 3,000 employees and rivaling private industry newcomer Sierra Nevada Corporation. Publicly held aerospace manufacturer Boeing claims more than 56,000 in its defense, space and security group. Although NASA remains to date the only American agency to have sent humans to space, those three companies are competing for crew contracts from NASA. SpaceX and Virginia-based Orbital Sciences have previously launched cargo.

Most impressive of all, Hoffman saw SpaceX engineers working on their own projects -- not a novel concept. But it brought her back to her days as a NASA co-op when she had to drop her arduously designed blueprints off at the shop and wait for contractors to slap her baby together. Often shop workers had long lists of orders to fill, leaving her to twiddle her thumbs or work on less urgent projects when she'd rather be at the mill herself.

At NASA, getting orders back from the shop didn't mean she was guaranteed to see her projects fly. Due to funding constraints, NASA projects are constantly shelved or canceled altogether. Hoffman felt this most acutely as a student because the co-op program allowed her only a limited amount of time at various branches. In order to complete a project, she had to abide by a strict timeline.

In Hoffman's three years at NASA, she worked on only one or two projects that would ever see space, which she considers a very poor rate. Most of her efforts were spent on potential prototypes or preliminary research for future projects, leaving her to ask, "Well, I guess I kinda sorta contributed?"

 

Jehon Leonce is a former flight controller at NASA who left the space industry for more leadership roles in oil and gas.
Jehon Leonce is a former flight controller at NASA who left the space industry for more leadership roles in oil and gas.
Photo by Ashli Hill

A Johnson Space Center spokeswoman declined to comment on how project cancellation affects workforce morale. NASA headquarters spokeswoman Sonja Alexander said NASA civil servants tend to stay with the agency until retirement, and talent retention is no issue.

"Space exploration is a tri-sector enterprise between government, academia and the commercial sector," she wrote in a statement. "No one sector can do it alone. We encourage flow of people, money and projects between these sectors. Collaboration has been the NASA business model since the agency was created."

SpaceX inspired Hoffman to reimagine a career with opportunities to work on her engineering projects even if the technicians were busy and not have it considered diverting work from contract labor. If she chose to work long hours at a commercial company, she wouldn't be "punished for being an overachiever." If she spent months on a project, she could be assured it would get launched into space.

For Hoffman, having her projects go unfinished at NASA may have been the personal foul that tipped her toward private industry, but she also suspected her own engineering frustrations were only the surface byproduct of more institutionalized problems. NASA's financial insecurity, its lack of administrative direction and its bureaucracy had worn on her confidence in its future.

Because she joined the space industry aiming to realize a personal goal of one day vacationing in space, Hoffman is looking to forward-thinking companies with the same idea of revolutionizing commercial spaceflight. Las Vegas startup Bigelow Aerospace is a company with serious plans to develop "crewed space complexes," essentially orbiting space hotels. Hoffman believes space tourism will eventually become reality after commercial launch companies take over missions from NASA.

So with the academic pedigree and skill set to keep her in indefinite demand, Hoffman gritted her teeth and stepped away from an agency traditionally viewed as the dream destination for the nation's most promising young engineers to take a job with a private company.

She's not alone in her decision. Increasingly, civil servants are leaving for the money in oil and gas. Subcontractors are breaking away to seek job prospects at more entrepreneurial, less bureaucratic companies. And career services reps at top universities are encouraging their engineering students to weigh a complex host of questions while searching for jobs in the space industry -- including whether they should expect to actually practice what they've learned in school.

Former NASA flight controller Jehon Leonce, 29, let oil and gas entice him away with a project manager offer he couldn't refuse. He summarized NASA's struggle to inspire young engineers as "an uphill battle" considering the federal agency's track record of major cancellations, such as the retirement of the space shuttle program in 2011. He said NASA's current focus on Orion, a craft designed to explore deep space, is well intentioned but still risky. Orion was itself scavenged out of the moon exploration program Constellation, which was canceled in 2010.

"There's not much of a short-term vision," Leonce said. "[Private companies] launch missions, and people are attracted to that. With NASA, until the new vehicle they're working on comes online, honestly speaking, it's kind of boring.

 

Bonnie Dunbar is a former astronaut advocating for mure funding of NASA projects.
Bonnie Dunbar is a former astronaut advocating for mure funding of NASA projects.
Photo courtesy of NASA public domain galleries

As the government encourages commercial space companies to take on responsibilities that were once strictly NASA's, young people entering the workforce are finding that their employment options have broadened.

"Students have certainly in the last few years gotten more interested in companies like SpaceX. SpaceX certainly has some dynamic leadership, so that catches students' attention," said Michael Powell of the University of Texas at Austin's Cockrell School of Engineering. Cockrell is known in the academic world for its consistent co-op program with NASA, the federal agency's main recruiting tool. According to Powell, the school provides three to five co-ops a class, and most have traditionally signed on with NASA as full-time hires. Still others are drawn to commercial companies, start-ups especially, for more responsibility earlier in their careers. "Even students who wind up accepting a job with a private company could still technically live the dream of working with NASA on a NASA project [as contractors]," he said.

Organizations that are speculative and researched-based will consistently attract risk-taking students, Powell added. Commercial companies appeal to those looking for more tangible results. Nicole Van Den Heuvel of Rice University's career development center believes the surge of talent toward private industry is generally telling of how the younger generation thinks.

"It's leaner. There are more opportunities for quicker growth in companies that are more entrepreneurial," Van Den Heuvel said. "[NASA] is a government entity, a fantastic organization, but with that comes a lot of bureaucracy and layers."

Going back to 2009, Van Den Heuvel said, only a handful of Rice engineering students have accepted full-time positions with NASA. That is due in part to the fact that Rice doesn't have a culture of co-op programs, having decided it's too difficult for students to graduate in four years when they're taking time away from school to work for entire semesters. Engineering students who enroll with the specific intention of finding astronautics jobs are determined to do so out of love for the idea of space, Van Den Heuvel said. They're going to find work regardless, typically at commercial companies where they can have more control over their own projects.

NASA projects undergo extensive development from start to finish before they can be delivered to the International Space Station. There are endless design iterations and tests, the building of software and hardware and certification.

Cancellation somewhere along that ladder is common enough that it has earned the moniker "the valiant death," according to University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering's Dr. Bonnie Dunbar, a former NASA contractor turned civil servant and astronaut.

A weight-compressing project particularly dear to Hoffman abruptly ran out of funding in the middle of her co-op program. Another to which she contributed for a short time, the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle, is a rover astronauts could eventually drive on asteroid missions, provided its budget holds out. Work on MMSEV has repeatedly stalled and resumed throughout the past decade in conjunction with fiscal cycles, Hoffman said. Dunbar explained the valiant death as not an engineering problem but a funding one. If work on a project stops after a single mishap, she said, that should be a wake-up call to Congress that NASA needs more dollars.

At SpaceX, funding comes from a mix of commercial and government clients, including a $1.6 billion NASA cargo delivery contract and another $440 million in seed money from the agency to develop life-support systems for crew missions. As a private commercial company, "When we sign that contract, that's when we get paid," SpaceX spokesman John Taylor said.

According to a study by consulting firm Dittmar Associates, the average American taxpayer thinks NASA receives nearly a quarter of the federal budget. In reality, the agency gets less than 0.5 percent. During the 1960s, when funding for NASA was about 4.4 percent of federal spending, it delivered the moon landing and kickstarted the international computer industry, raking in ten times the cost of space programs in returns. Yet in the post-space-race new millennium, NASA's budget has become increasingly difficult to defend in Washington. Its public-relations message of hope, discovery and pushing the boundaries of human potential into the final frontier isn't hitting home for politicians.

In 2011, the space shuttle program officially ended under President Barack Obama owing to costs and safety concerns. Instead, Obama urged Congress to task commercial launch companies like SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada with transporting crew and cargo to the International Space Station. The transition hasn't been without bumps.

 

In March 2013, former Texas congressman Steve Stockman, whose district included Johnson Space Center, said, "NASA employees became demoralized, and employee retention became a serious problem" after the space shuttle program was canceled. Contractor companies reliant on NASA appropriations continued to experience waves of layoffs this summer, and Houston's United Space Alliance faces probable dissolution with the completion of its final contract in September. It's unlikely that Stockman's dogged skepticism (as an outspoken "birther") of the President's citizenship helped his case.

Contrary to the common misconception that the space industry isn't big enough for both NASA and the commercial sector, NASA has always encouraged competition by funding the development of a number of commercial launch companies. It licenses technology to those competing for its contracts and assumes the high risk of undertaking space research so commercial companies can then apply that research to profitable use. GPS, global communications, meteorological devices and even the Mylar balloons gracing grocery checkouts all emerged from NASA technology.

Better to buttress a robust space industry with competition than to monopolize a nonexistent one, according to Dunbar.

Problems arise when commercial companies entice not only young talent but also public interest and congressional support away from NASA. Partially to blame: the public's science and engineering illiteracy.

Members of Congress are reluctant to fund new satellites when they don't understand the expenditure is necessary so people can continue checking weather forecasts on their smartphones. Policy makers are less likely to heed the National Research Council's 2014 year-in-production report recommending budget increases for NASA when quick searches of private companies' mounting accomplishments cast doubt on the federal agency's continued relevancy.

A common recommendation aimed at NASA's floundering public image is that it should disseminate a clearer message about its mission. That's not so easy when NASA is precluded from advertising, though Dunbar said education is a different matter. She believes fostering space appreciation among the general public should be a grassroots effort. At the very least, she wants a budget for putting posters in classrooms to get children on the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) track.

Alternatively, when money is available for undertaking grand projects, poor management of funds can undermine success. Dunbar said problems occur when engineering teams are moving fast, projects are understaffed and under-resourced, and areas that require the most focus aren't getting it. Senior software engineer Adam Nieves (not his real name) calls that phenomenon "faster, better, cheaper," a mentality he said was coined under 1990s NASA administrator Dan Goldin. Nieves believes taking shortcuts in engineering to build cheaper products faster has become more entrenched in the face of pressure from SpaceX and other commercial companies where it's common practice.

But NASA, Nieves argues, should know better than to deliver subpar product for use on the space station before thorough testing, citing Johnson Space Center's charter to support manned missions -- that is, to sustain actual human lives in space.

"[Faster, better, cheaper] in itself is okay, but if you're just going to be hacking stuff together, don't expect to fly it when you're done," Nieves said. "We're not focused, but we have some money so we're going to do some freaking prototyping. I always thought, well, if more of this stuff blows up, this shit's going to stop...Nothing's changed."

Nieves points to NASA's Active Response Gravity Offload System as a prime example of management mistakes that had real potential for harm. A machine used to simulate microgravity environments, ARGOS accidentally dropped a test subject about 18 inches in January 2013, though the subsequent investigation found that the drop could have occurred from four or five feet above the ground. In March of this year, the Houston Rockets' beloved center Dwight Howard was filmed swinging from ARGOS during a visit to Johnson Space Center, his dominant left arm extended in a Superman pose.

Senior engineers like Nieves believe it's only a matter of time before corner-cutting in engineering results in a serious accident, yet younger engineers liken that attitude to "red tape." Leonce and others believe that NASA's endless bureaucracy can constrain innovation and exploration. Historically, the agency has been committed to strapping proud Americans with freshly signed wills into rockets and launching them into space via a bomb detonated at one end. He thinks that spirit is sacred.

"You can take safety overboard," Leonce said. "I've sat in many meetings where we're just arguing over the simplest things. It just becomes borderline ridiculous. I don't think we could have ever gotten to the moon if the culture that now exists at NASA existed in the '60s."

Leonce said he understands the older generation's anxieties considering they've worked through the deadly Challenger and Columbia disasters. Yet private launch companies will be more attractive for engineers fresh out of school, he said, because that culture of risk aversion is "a death in itself."

Now a project manager in oil and gas, Leonce said he left his glamorous role at NASA as a flight controller in the front room -- the "Houston" in "Houston, we have a problem" -- because he was stagnating in a position with no potential for promotion. At LEAM Drilling Systems, he applies his NASA-cultivated quick thinking to a leadership role. Still, Leonce said he considers energy to be a pit stop in his plans to return to the space industry, and when that happens, he would likely look to a commercial company.

 

Looking back, Hoffman still considers NASA to be the symbol of her childhood dreams. Private industry offers her more opportunities to do the work she went to school for, but the old job was undeniably more glamorous. She spent her days around astronauts, celebrity figures who were present when history was being made. NASA's human capital was unparalleled, Hoffman said, and she believes, "They really do have the best interests of space travel at heart."

Yet she couldn't overlook NASA's financial culture, the projects getting canceled, the workforce attrition, the dwindling opportunities to be selected for the astronaut corps. She compared the trajectories of NASA and commercial startups, and looked to those with more experience in the industry to establish that the traffic of talent was moving from federal to private.

"Being able to see it, see my project get canceled and see a lot of the older engineers who had many projects canceled, that really informed my decision. That is something that is actually happening and is frustrating engineers," Hoffman said. "I was worried that I was going to get five years into my career [at NASA] and find...that I was unhappy."

Charles Hill, a materials engineering contractor who later became a NASA civil servant, said he can empathize with students' disillusionment when their designs don't result in deliverable goods, though that's a fact of life at NASA. Throughout his career, he mentored university students, co-ops and interns in the structural engineering division and loved it, he said, because of the interest and ambition with which young engineers took to the work he considered routine. With priorities of his own and responsibilities to the space station, Hill occasionally assigned his co-ops side projects to which he couldn't devote much personal time. Sometimes their work is patented, and sometimes funding runs out before designs even leave the blueprinting stage.

"It takes years and years, really, for new, innovative concepts to really be developed," Hill said. "Anything that is new, there's an element of risk there that we don't want to invest tons of money to develop something that we're not sure of yet, that sort of thing."

Hill said he advocates for patenting his co-ops' research through an administrative board, but board members don't always invite him to present the merits of new technology in person. Rather, they make decisions based on reports and pictures he submits. Hill said he understands how the failure to secure an innovation patent could frustrate students.

Contractors keep the rights to their innovations, but civil servants' designs would belong to NASA, according to NASA patent lawyer Kurt Hammerle. Even if civil servants left for commercial companies, they couldn't take their own technology with them for completion without licensing it first. Hoffman, however, never received patents on her stalled NASA projects, so as far as she knows, her innovations are in limbo.

Hoffman declined NASA's job offer after working there as a student, and Dunbar said the young engineer may have acted too soon considering that NASA staffs the brightest minds in spaceflight to contribute scientific research in a way commercial companies do not. Going to space is worth waiting for despite the odds, she added. And part of the reason Hoffman didn't want her real name used for this story is that she says she might want to return to NASA some day.

"I do find that young people don't always take the long view. Companies also go through risk. Each individual has to make decisions with the best available data," Dunbar said. "In this case, knowing that Congress is starting to wake up, the American public is starting to wake up, the fact that you have three other nations announcing publicly that they're going to the moon, I'm optimistic there's some new energy out there."

Hoffman said she had only followed in the footsteps of her peers, many of whom were leaving for the same reasons. Retired NASA contractor and software engineer Del Murphy said the young don't always prioritize safety as much as they should. He said bureaucracy is good when following strict procedures through a system of checks and counterbalances minimizes human casualties. However, it's a lose-lose situation when too much bureaucracy in fact contributes to tragedy, as the Rogers Commission found in its investigation following the Challenger disaster. Dunbar explained that space shuttle Challenger broke up 73 seconds after launch because of a materials malfunction related to human error. The people who knew about the problems weren't heard out, she said.

Murphy said poor engineering standards and administrators' lack of accountability are at the root of NASA's internal wrangling over innovation and risk aversion. He said NASA is more interested in covering up failure than in learning from it. After NASA's first fatal disaster, the 1967 Apollo I fire that trapped three astronauts in a capsule with an inward-opening hatch, the fear of failure became an institutionalized melancholy.

"A healthy environment is an open forum where people discuss back and forth about problems and get it down," Murphy said. "I can't tell you the searing that went through all our minds when those shuttles blew up."

NASA's engineering blunders don't always result in harm to human beings. Valkyrie, a $3 million "superhuman robot" unveiled with great pomp, quietly placed last at the 2013 DARPA Robotics Challenge. Yet its predecessor, Robonaut, a virtually controlled device with an innovative electronic communications system, contributed technologies that were transferred for use in Houston's medical industry. UH Cullen College of Engineering Professor Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal collaborated with NASA to produce thought-controlled exoskeleton robots to help recovering stroke victims walk again. His patients are outfitted with brain-scanning helmets and robotic splints for their legs, which he expects will re-create natural mobility with continued use.

When Dunbar hears the phrase "tech transfer," her main concern is that NASA must continue to receive the resources for creating that tech in the first place.

"NASA has to be funded for new technologies and to continue to be provided for as the engine of exploration," she cautioned. "We're starting to fall behind other companies. Once that dries up, there are no new companies. There's no leadership in academia."

 

SpaceX announced Aug. 4 that it will establish its new spaceport in Brownsville, Texas. State officials have encourged CEO Elon Musk in those plans from the beginning, finally offering his company $2.3 million in incentives to build the world's first commercial launch complex.

"Texas has been on the forefront of our nation's space exploration efforts for decades, so it is fitting that SpaceX has chosen our state as they expand the frontiers of commercial space flight," Gov. Rick Perry said in a news release. "In addition to growing the aerospace industry in Texas, SpaceX's facility will provide myriad opportunities for STEM education in South Texas and inspire a new generation of Texas engineers and innovators."

Other companies, such as Raytheon and XCOR, relocated their space headquarters from California to Texas in 2013, and Lockheed Martin moved 650 jobs from Georgia to Fort Worth. As Texas aggregates aerospace companies, Hoffman hopes to return eventually to her home state.

Lifelong NASA employees like Nieves and Murphy said they feel NASA's institutionalized problems are no longer their fight. They don't think the space shuttle program will reopen, and in ten years when funding for the International Space Station runs out, that will be the end of another era.

Hoffman is worried about that, too. She doesn't believe Congress will renew space station funding, and the end of NASA's space shuttle program meant American astronauts had to buy exorbitant seats on Russian rockets to go to space. If she stayed at NASA, she would face rapidly decreasing chances of becoming an astronaut herself -- a private dream that did play a role in her decision to leave. SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada are gunning for manned flight, and one stipulation in NASA's competition for crew contracts is that commercial companies send their own people first. Statistically, there's a much better chance Hoffman would realize her dream of flying to space by leaving NASA.

"There are so many people who want to go to space, but chances are slim that'll work with the traditional model," she said. "If people are willing to spend thousands of dollars on a cruise, they'll be willing to spend the same for a trip to space for a couple days. If [commercial companies] can deliver that, they can eventually bring the price down so that it's just a common occurrence, like taking a plane across the country. It would be amazing."

There are everyday clues tugging her toward private industry as well. Hoffman makes light of how ordinary people -- waiters at restaurants, the guy sitting next to her at the bar -- will tell her they thought NASA had already shut down. But the misconception, which Dunbar said she hears also, points to NASA's constant struggle to keep space exploration relevant to the public.

Hoffman stressed it wasn't easy to turn down NASA. "When you're working for NASA, you're just kind of taught that this is something to be very proud of, that this is more than a job," she said. Individual commercial companies aren't as well known outside the scientific community, and it took some time to deflect the shock and confusion among her family and friends when they heard she wasn't staying in Houston. She does believe she'll be happy in private industry, if only for the chance to dirty her hands in the shop.

But she's still going to miss home, wearing cowboy boots and going country dancing. She planned to commemorate her final night in Houston after lunch at Boondoggles, the astronaut bar named -- according to Merriam-Webster -- for "an expensive and wasteful project usually paid for with public money."


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