Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Downsizing workforces for Bigger Rockets

NASA expects to lose 8,600 jobs after the Shuttle is retired in 2010. Kennedy Space Center will feel the brunt of the impact, losing 6,400 employees. An initial assessment would make this development seem devastating. But it might not be as much of a disaster as we might think.

The current Space Shuttle System relies on an orbiter, Space Shuttle Main Engines, external tank, and solid rocket boosters. If Project Constellation comes to fruition, the orbiter will be replaced by Orion and Altair spacecraft; Space Shuttle Main Engines will be replaced with RS-68 and J-2X engines; the external tank will be replaced by the Ares I upper stage, Earth Departure Stage, and the mammoth Ares V core; the solid rocket booster workforce will remain largely unchanged.

The Constellation architecture has more elements to it, but the number of personnel needed at the Cape to support them decreases. It cannot be forgotten that the orbiters and their main engines are maintenance-hogs that are extremely manpower-intensive. But for expendable launchers like Ares (if you neglect the SRB's,) a larger fraction of the total workforce is devoted to production of the expendable components.

The NASA estimates of job losses only cover the projections from now through Fiscal Year 2014. During that frame of time, production of external tanks will come to a halt; Orion capsules will be produced at a pace that will support two missions per year; Ares I upper stages and J-2X engines will be produced at a similar rate; the shuttle orbiters will head off to museums. NASA faces the potential of a damaging brain-drain in the period between the final shuttle flight and the ramp-up of the Ares V program.

Fear not, fans of big government space programs, earmarks, and pork-barrel spending. The jobs will be coming back to Kennedy Space Center, Michoud and elsewhere. Ares V will require NASA's employment numbers to ramp up to levels similar to the shuttle program. The problem is that Ares V won't ramp up until the second half of the next decade, and neither Ares V nor Altair will fly until 2018 at the earliest. NASA's challenge will be ramping up its workforce to support Ares V and Altair (or finding ways of keeping people on their payroll and keeping their skills sharp during the gap between Shuttle retirement and Ares V ramp-up.)

Many of the job losses will likely be offset through retirements (both scheduled retirements and early buy-outs.) The aerospace industry as a whole is older than many other industries. Younger engineers are increasingly drawn into other industries because aerospace careers have a dimmer outlook than, say, careers in software or consumer electronics. It makes for an easier downsizing process, but the "graybeards" and their institutional knowledge will be sorely missed.

Another safety concern arises when discussing layoffs in the shuttle program. As it draws to a close, how do you keep skilled people from jumping ship? Obviously, you want the best people working on the shuttle to ensure that we don't get anybody killed in another accident. But if they see no future for themselves and if they view it as career suicide, where's the incentive for them to stay aboard?

Now that we've taken a glance at the workforce issues facing Project Constellation, we have to ask if things would be any better under a competing architecture. If NASA had adopted DIRECT instead, I think the situation would play out thusly:
--A fairly constant employment level would be maintained at Michoud. The transition from Shuttle external tanks to Jupiter cores would be seamless. As Jupiter upper stages went into production, there would be a spike in employment numbers, but nowhere as high as the Constellation scenario where Ares cores, upper stages, and EDS's are rolling off the line at the same time.
--Kennedy Space Center employment numbers would be somewhat less than under Constellation. There would still be a loss of personnel after the orbiter retirement. The number of unique stages (Jupiter upper stage & core vs. Ares core, upper stage & EDS) is lower and the stages are smaller, so less personnel would likely be needed.

The difference in employment strategies between DIRECT and Constellation is stark. DIRECT would retain a higher fraction of the shuttle workforce immediately after orbiter retirement, but would not add too many jobs over the long haul. Constellation gets hammered with job losses early on, but then brings a lot of people aboard once the post-shuttle gap is closed.