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.