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?"