Chair Force Engineer

Monday, March 15, 2010

Preventing the Giant Sucking Sound

When Congress passed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, Ross Perot famously predicted a "giant sucking sound" as American jobs went south of the border. While Mr. Perot's accuracy is debatable, I thought the phrase was apropos for the predicted job losses expected at Cape Canaveral, Johnson Space Center, Michoud Assembly Facility and elsewhere when the Space Shuttle program winds down.

The Obama Administration's support for private entities as a replacement for the space shuttle does not mean that the total number of space-related jobs is going down. If anything, it may increase during the next five to ten years. The challenge is twofold: maintain the industry skills base and knowledge base until the successor vehicles are mature, and ensure that shuttle program workers who are below retirement age can quickly be placed into new space-related careers.

The need for any nation to recognize its technical workforce as a strategic asset is essential. Their skills must be retained for the nation's competitiveness and survival. Even Saddam Hussein found projects that could keep his nuclear scientists employed when he put his nuclear weapons program into hibernation. Every nation strives to find productive applications for its technical workforce, although creating "make work" positions is sometimes a necessary evil. With proper planning, it may be possible to find productive applications for the shuttle workforce instead of keeping them on the NASA payroll to perform work that is not useful once the shuttle is retired.

I'm empathetic to the problems faced by an unemployed technical workforce. I, for one, an am unemployed engineer. Many of my friends from college are currently working on the shuttle program. Nobody wants to relocate their families in search of work which may not last for the rest of that person's career. The goal is to estimate the number of newspace jobs that are predicted in central Florida, Houston and elsewhere, and match the existing workforce members with jobs fitting their skillsets.

I don't know what currently exists for helping members of the shuttle workforce to find employment, but NASA really needs a "Shuttle Transition Office" that has a high priority within the agency. Such an office would work closely with SpaceX, ULA, Sierra Nevada Corp, Bigelow Aerospace and everybody else in the newspace arena to encourage maximum reuse of existing shuttle facilities (the Vehicle Assembly Building at the cape and Michould Assembly Facility come to mind,) and maximum use of shuttle program employees in NewSpace programs.

Recent estimates of 23,000 job losses from Central Florida from the shuttle shutdown are shocking. They're enough to scare up congressional support for the expensive and impractical Ares-Orion system, if for no other reason than preventing a massive exodus of skilled workers than the swing state of Florida. Retiring the shuttle is far more drastic than phasing a particular type of airplane out of the Air Force inventory, since the Air Force rarely retires a plane without a replacement. It's more akin to the Air Force saying that they won't be flying any more bombers. The need for the unique skills required to fly the shuttle isn't going away; it's merely splitting between a number or corporate entities. With a solid plan and steadfast execution, the painful transition from the Shuttle to Dragon, DreamChaser and Orion-Lite will be far less costly in terms of job losses and stressful relocations for the families of America's exemplary shuttle workforce.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Blast From the Past

One of my new favorite hobbies is playing emulated video games on my PC. The blocky 8-bit graphics are crude yet nostalgic. Some of the game designs were so well thought-out that the games are still classic and addictive.

One of my stops down memory lane was Space Shuttle Project by Absolute Entertainment. That's right, there was a Nintendo game based on the space shuttle program. And it was probably enough to excite a nerdy, space-loving eight-year-old like myself during those days. The grainy voices of mission control featured in the game were pretty neat for their day. The gameplay itself is somewhat tedious; the player must execute a sequence of tasks using the control pad (I'm using a Playstation controller, which plugs into my PC's USB port through an adapter.) A keen memory really helps in this game. Having the instruction manual would also help, since the control scheme for each task is different.

For science-minded boys playing the game, I'm sure it was pretty educational about the major events in the shuttle flight sequence, the propellant loading operation, and the satellite deployment mission. It also includes bitterly funny moments; when the player runs out of chances during the launch sequence, he/she gets a newspaper which says "Shuttle Launch Aborted; Crew Ejectes (sic) Safely." I guess it's not okay to tell kids that the astronauts are doomed in the event of a major anomaly between liftoff and the point where a transatlantic abort is possible. After all, this game was produced just five years after the Challenger disaster, and it was important to reassure kids about America's vibrant future in space.

Space Shuttle Project didn't get very popular, and few (if any) console games of this sort were produced again (There is a Space Camp game for Wii, but it looks like shovelware upon first glance.) Luckily, people who are serious space enthusiasts can still play along with Orbiter on their home PC's.