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

Categories: Spaced City


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?"



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9 comments
gr8er_than_8
gr8er_than_8

gr8 work!!!! best article ever! i learned so much and it is so sad that NASA has miss-allocated the best and brightest the US had to offer. 

JohnMcGee1
JohnMcGee1

This article is too cautious (understandable given this is Houston) to call out the major issue. 


The huge pork barreled "Space Launch System" that is literally sucking BILLIONs per YEAR out of all other NASA activities. The SLS is a congressional mandated project using ancient technology that is the epitome of wasteful government spending. 


If you are smart, do you want to work for NASA where they misspend all their billions on this stupid project, all real science and good work is cancelled and you have a congressional delegation of Republican's in charge trying to tie up the new commercial space folks in red tape? 


NO WAY! If you are smart, that will disgust you, and you will go work for SpaceX, Sierra, Blue Origin, Bigalow and just hope those republican senators don't try and blow your company up with red tape to protect their special interest voting blocks. 


As taxpayers rich and poor, we should be appalled when congress (and particularly the republicans running this pork show) pull hard earned dollars out of our pockets to blow on total BS. At least pay for something useful (SpaceX, etc) or give it back.




JohnMcGee1
JohnMcGee1

This article is too cautious (understandable given this is Houston) to call out the major issue. 


The huge pork barraled "Space Launch System" 

mailhdot
mailhdot

This article is based on an invalid comparison. You can't compare NASA jobs to NASA contractor jobs. Space X is a NASA contractor that builds things for NASA. NASA does not build rockets. Most commercial sector jobs are going to pay better than a government job and most of the "action" happens at contractors like Space X, ULA, Sierra Nevada, General Electric, IBM, Moog, and the other companies that make things for NASA.


NASA is supposed to have far fewer employees than these contractors by design. Comparing the size of the NASA work force to that of NASA contractors is ludicrous, but this Ellen Weinstein is probably out of touch with that reality and is only repeating stuff that somebody told her. 

We know that only a small percentage of the SLS workforce work for NASA. They ARE private sector employees, just like the employees of the New Space companies that this reporter seems to be enamored with.

TomBillings
TomBillings

I congratulate this publication on bringing a clarion call of truth to the people of Houston on this issue. I am only disappointed in one particular about the article. Whenever it mentioned various cancellations of projects these people worked on it did *not* mention the real reason was *not* lack of funding, but politically mandated misallocation of funding by the congressional committees controlling NASA's budgets. Most of the small projects Bonnie Dunbar was thinking of could have easily been funded, if the money had not been eaten by the Orion project and the Space Launch System. 

The latter is well-known within the industry as the "Senate launch System", because it was specified in congressional staff meetings to use 45 years old tech that is far less efficient than that used by groups like SpaceX, but allows continuation of jobs in "the right congressional districts". Similarly, the Orion project uses heavy Apollo-era heat shield material, when NASA itself developed the far better PICA material. This is now used by SpaceX, with modifications to make it much easier to produce and mold into heat shields for the Dragon and Dragon V 2 spacecraft.


Until NASA's congressional appropriations sub-committees are controlled by people interested in using spaceflight technology to settle the Solar System, instead of buying votes in their districts, NASA will continue in a decaying orbit, because these Congressmen and Senators will not allow it to climb out of that orbit into the rest of our species home, the Solar System.

TomBillings
TomBillings

I congratulate this publication on bringing a clarion call of truth to the people of Houston on this issue. I am only disappointed in one particular about the article. Whenever it mentioned various cancellations of projects these people worked on it did *not* mention the real reason was *not* lack of funding, but politically mandated misallocation of funding by the congressional committees controlling NASA's budgets. Most of the small projects Bonnie Dunbar was thinking of could have easily been funded, if the money had not been eaten by the Orion project and the Space Launch System. 

The latter is well-known within the industry as the "Senate launch System", because it was specified in congressional staff meetings to use 45 years old tech that is far less efficient than that used by groups like SpaceX, but allows continuation of jobs in "the right congressional districts". Similarly, the Orion project uses heavy Apollo-era heat shield material, when NASA itself developed the far better PICA material. This is now used by SpaceX, with modifications to make it much easier to produce and mold into heat shields for the Dragon and Dragon V 2 spacecraft.


Until NASA's congressional appropriations sub-committees are controlled by people interested in using spaceflight technology to settle the Solar System, instead of buying votes in their districts, NASA will continue in a decaying orbit, because these Congressmen and Senators will not allow it to climb out of that orbit into the rest of our species home, the Solar System.

TomBillings
TomBillings

I congratulate this publication on bringing a clarion call of truth to the people of Houston on this issue. I am only disappointed in one particular about the article. Whenever it mentioned various cancellations of projects these people worked on it did *not* mention the real reason was *not* lack of funding, but politically mandated misallocation of funding by the congressional committees controlling NASA's budgets. Most of the small projects Bonnie Dunbar was thinking of could have easily been funded, if the money had not been eaten by the Orion project and the Space Launch System. 

The latter is well-known within the industry as the "Senate launch System", because it was specified in congressional staff meetings to use 45 years old tech that is far less efficient than that used by groups like SpaceX, but allows continuation of jobs in "the right congressional districts". Similarly, the Orion project uses heavy Apollo-era heat shield material, when NASA itself developed the far better PICA material. This is now used by SpaceX, with modifications to make it much easier to produce and mold into heat shields for the Dragon and Dragon V 2 spacecraft.


Until NASA's congressional appropriations sub-committees are controlled by people interested in using spaceflight technology to settle the Solar System, instead of buying votes in their districts, NASA will continue in a decaying orbit, because these Congressmen and Senators will not allow it to climb out of that orbit into the rest of our species home, the Solar System.

pbasch
pbasch

@mailhdot Well, yes. That's right. Also, NASA does a lot more basic science and experimental engineering. If you're an engineer who "builds rockets", NASA may well not be the best place for you. But if you're a physicist, an exobiologist, or an instrument engineer, or many other things, SpaceX, for all that it's a great place (I have visited and been awestruck, too) would not have an opening. And you just won't make as much at NASA as at many contractors. So, there's that.

I don't know anything about the SLS, and perhaps it is a make-work boondoggle (though, among boondoggles, I prefer a make-work boondoggle to a make-my-golf-buddies-rich boondoggle, or, even worse, a whip-the-USA-into-a-patriotic-frenzy-by-killing-brown-people-AND-make-my-golf-buddies-rich boondoggle). Write to your congressperson about spending priorities if that's a problem.

mailhdot
mailhdot

@pbasch @mailhdot I would prefer to see much of the science that NASA does turned over to the National Science Foundation. NASA was created by Congress in 1958 as the natural progression from it's predecessor, NACA (The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) NASA is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, not the National Aeronautics and Space Science Administration.

Big Science got fully aboard the NASA ride when the JFK administration was looking to build support for  the Apollo program. prior to that, scientists like Dr. Van Allen were more or less invited guests who were contracted to provide experiments for the space research that became possible because NASA was in the business of reaching extreme altitudes and deep space. I feel it should still be that way. Instead, NASA funded labs and science wield powerful control over an agency that was intended to do aviation and space flight engineering research tasks, not theoretical science.

Don't get me wrong, I support Big Science. I just thing that the engineering and science challenges should be handled by separate government entities so that we don't see the scientists versus engineers political/funding conflicts that hinder the overall progress of NASA.




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