Sunday, May 31, 2009

Young People and the Space Business

Believe it or not, I managed to take in a little of the actual content at the ISDC this year. Not a whole lot, mind you, but enough to cover at least one topic: the next generation of rocket scientists, astronauts, engineers, etc. I got a flavor for this in three environments:
  • A panel on future workforce issues ("workforce refresh")
  • A panel on hands-on education for aspiring space-minded students
  • The NASA/National Space Society Space Settlement Contest

Workforce Refresh Panel
The workforce refresh panel was hosted by my buddy Loretta Whitesides, founder of Yuri's Night, blogger, and follower of inter-generational issues (like me). The participants included:

  • Stacy Phillips from the Office of Human Capital at Kennedy Space Center
  • Clay Yonce from Organizational Development at KSC
  • Cassie Kloberdanz, Communications Associate at SpaceX
  • Brooke Owens from the FAA's Office of Space Transportation
  • Bob Richards, one of the founders of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS)

Loretta began by sharing some all-too-familiar statistics and charts showing the "monogenerational organization" that NASA has become. The average age of workers at NASA is 47 (I thought it was 49, go figure), and there are not a lot of folks older or younger than that. Part of that was due to historical staffing decisions: a lot of Apollo-era people were offered buy-outs in the late '80s while the agency itself experienced a hiring freeze in the early '90s--a situation that persists because the agency has been constrained in its civil service staffing for years now. The average age of new hires is 37, and the average age of the workforce is growing by 1.1 years every year. As one person put it, NASA is "aging faster than time."

Stacy Phillips spoke first. She reminded the audience of former administrator Mike Griffin's pledge to move NASA's workforce to 50 percent "fresh outs" (as in "people fresh out of college"). That sounds nice and makes sense, but given the "echo boom" of Generation Y, that's a little deceptive because 50% of the workforce IS fresh-outs anyway. So all Griffin wanted to do was bring the agency more in line with the national averages.

Phillips discussed the fact that NASA has a mentoring program. There was a call from NASA Headquarters for each center to have some sort of mentoring problem...without mandating a particular program. The mentoring process has concerned me for some time, as I watch management struggle to figure out how to mentor and young people entering NASA try to figure out what they want out of a mentor. Mentoring is not easy, and not everyone can do it well. KSC has a "matching tool" to connect mentors and "mentees" in a sort of web environment, which I believe has met with mixed results. Some folks within the agency, Phillips said, have suggested that NASA adopt a Google type of environment, where 70% of work time is devoted to direct product tasks, 20% goes to indirect support of products, and 10% goes toward innovation. There was no real idea, though, of how to implement such an environment at KSC or elsewhere.

Clay Yonce focused on activities to prevent departures of Gen Y workers. NASA has been trying to give "early career professionals" face time with senior management through a program called "Launching Leaders." Yonce described it as "social networking outside the computer," where under-30s can meet subject matter experts. He also discussed partnering with United Way and other non-profit organizations as a way to expand the program. He explained that there was a serious lack of hands-on experience among new civil servants (more on that a bit later).

Cassie Kloberdanz, who's been a friend since 2007, started off by explaining that workforce retention was not unique to NASA. She had two mentoring experiences at NASA, one at KSC, one at Marshall, with the MSFC experience being much more positive and rewarding than the KSC experience. At MSFC, she got to touch the hardware and was given responsibility. At KSC, new employee orientation was not emphasized and she wasn't given much responsibility or feedback. This caused her to leave the agency and return to school (she was doing a co-op with the National Space Society when we met in '07). She was very passionate about giving new employees responsibility, holding them accountable, and letting them "sink or swim."

Brooke Owens started out wanting to be a pilot, but 9/11 contracted the job market. She turned toward space, attending the International Space University (ISU). She eventually ended up at the X Prize Foundation, where she was tasked with leading a team that had to build half a dozen composite models of Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne. Like Cassie, she emphasized the need for new employees being allowed to take risks, work hard, and do attractive/interesting work. She had the quote of the day for me: "If you think it's the scariest job in your life, that's probably the job you should take." I admired her go-get-'em spirit.

Bob Richards gave a narrative of the formation of SEDS, the ISU, and other groups in the time before the internet and "social networking" sites. He had a good line: "Retention is such a low bar."

I asked Brooke what educational experiences she'd had that gave her the confidence to take on something like the SpaceShipOne project. She emphasized her small-town background, where she wasn't really given a choice about working hard or "ditching class."

Cassie mentioned that the average age at SpaceX was around 35, with the technicians being somewhat older and the engineers and front-office folks being younger. She explained that "You don't get fired at SpaceX for making a mistake; you get fired for making the same mistake twice," a comment she'd made to me before the program.

Phillips mentioned that KSC offers training to mentors, which addressed my earlier concerns. I'd be interested to see what that consists of, but I'm a contractor so it wouldn't affect me anyway.

Someone else mentioned the Phaeton program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is an internally funded project for new hires.

Phillips had to field a question about bureaucracy and the inability of NASA to fire "bad employees." She shook her had and said she understood the concern: "There are good supervisors and there are not-good supervisors...we're going to start holding supervisors accountable."

Hands-On Education
This panel was sharply curtailed because the lunch preceding it ran long (like someone is going to interrupt Buzz Aldrin?), but it was still enlightening.

Tony Gannon, Director of Education, Space Florida
Space Florida has three primary activities: business development, education and workforce development, and space operations (rocket launches) at Cape Canaveral. Gannon was there to talk about the Space Florida Academy, which provides balloon-launched projects for college-level students. They're given a week to develop a payload and launch it: "The balloon goes up at 9 a.m. on Friday, whether the payload is ready or not." Students are also put into an "inquiry-based" learning environment, where questions are met with "Don't ask me, go find out for yourself." The sink-or-swim method. Works for me!

Gannon also shared with the audience that Lockheed Martin "could employ every graduate in engineering right now." That's a little scary.

Ruben Nuñez, Earthrise Space, Inc.
Here's what Earthrise Space's Facebook page has to say about what they do:

Earthrise Space, Inc. is a not for profit organization that was
founded by a group of students and professionals in Central Florida with the
common goal of advancing private and commercial space exploration. Our current
focus, the Omega Envoy project, will help realize these goals through successful
competition in the Google Lunar X PRIZE. We believe that any team with enough
dedication and sufficient engineering expertise can make incremental
technological advancements that will expand the horizons of human space

Through outreach to all academic and professional levels, coupled
with synergistic business relationships, we hope to maintain Florida’s position
as the global leader in the space industry. Perhaps more important, however, is
the effect it will have on the public conscience. This contest will drastically
change the way the community sees space, and redefine what is “possible”.
Regardless of whom wins, the victor of the X PRIZE will have proven that you do
not need government administration, exotic technology, or industry backing to
unlock the final frontier—it is open to all people on Earth, all backgrounds,
nationalities, and all ways of life. Thanks to modern advances in digital media
and communications, everyone can take part in “the next giant step.” All that
space requires of those who explore its depths is their courage—and for those
who dare shall be rewarded with unlimited opportunity.

In practical terms, they are providing students with hands-on experience via project-based education, akin to Space Florida's work. I liked his challenge: "If you don't do it, who's going to do it?"

Josh Neuberg, Conrad Foundation
The Conrad Foundation, named for late Apollo 12 astronaut Pete Conrad, provides prize-based, entrepreneurial education. I liked Neuberg's emphasis, which began with a brief zing on traditional book learning and championed instead "entrepreneurial education" to break down barriers between science (engineering) and business.

Michael Mealling, Masten Space Systems
I've known Mike since the 2006 X Prize Cup. He was brought into this discussion because Masten hires two college co-op students per year and because he wrote a blog about what students need to do to get into aerospace. His emphasis when hiring "fresh-outs" has been on the student's extra-curricular activities. He doesn't just ask, "What have you built?" but "What have you built without a teaching telling you to?" Masten does not want workers educated and experienced in "traditional aerospace" because it takes too long to "untrain" them (quoth Yoda: "You must unlearn what you have learned").

The introductions took up a good deal of the hour. When the Q&A session opened, the first person to speak was Gillian Evans, a math and physics teacher from Canada. The frustration in her voice was obvious. She appreciated what everyone on the panel was saying, but stated that the American system is based on GPAs and standardized tests. Today's teachers have "no incentive for inquiry-based learning."

Mealling partially agreed, but said that there are "holes" in the curriculum to allow teachers time to teach space-based, hands-on learning. Ms. Evans was adamant: "That only works with teachers who want to do it."

Another high school teacher, this one from the Florida Space Coast, said that it wasn't a teaching issue first, it was a political issue, arguing that private industry needs to lobby for loosening the test-based education model (No Child Left Behind).

Evans chimed in with "We don't need SATs. Get rid of them." There was then a brief discussion about how U.S. universities were supposed to accept students without some basis for comparison.

Gannon added that, "You don't just read science, you've got to go out and do it."

And at that point, I had to go over and make my pitch to the Conference Committee. But you get the idea. For science and engineering, as in most endeavors, students learn better by doing than just studying.

NASA/NSS Space Settlement Contest
I have no notes in my journal from this hour, and because I'm an idiot, I don't have pictures to share. Instead, I must share my impressions and all-too-fallible memories. Bear with me, the point is not to provide specifics here, anyway, but to offer some unvarnished analysis and opinion writing.

I talked to seven teams: three from India, two from Romania, one from Canada, one from the U.S.

Now the official winner was Eric Yam who was from Canada. Like many of the kids, he talked very quickly, but his concept was impressive. One of the constraints of the contest was for the students to use existing/known technologies as much as possible, and to avoid "unobtanium." The fundamental units of young Mr. Yam's massive geosynchronous structure were inflatable habitat modules based on Bigelow Aerospace's inflatable space station. The "ribs" of the structure are long tubes based on existing commercial aircraft airframes.

The two teams from Romania were mostly girls. They spoke more slowly than the boys, possibly because they were less comfortable with their English, but they had answers for all of my English-major-level questions. The benefits of their projects, as near as I can remember, were the use of expandable toroid designs. One design, in its final form, could house 500,000 people!

The one American kid I saw was just arriving as I was sniffing around. He was a pretty quiet, very tall young man from Georgia. He wasn't so much a "team" as an independent genius. His structure reminded me of The Machine from the movie Contact. However, there were a couple of unique features that caught my attention. For example, the outer sections of the ring/torus were seeded with bacteria that is highly radiation-resistant, but also can be used to process wastes. The core of the station was also interesting, in that it had a very unique appearance--almost organic. The student grinned a little and said, "That's because it's grown." And by "grown," he means organically developed from space-based materials at a nanoscopic level. For this student (Jacob, I believe, is his name), the Singularity really is near.

And while I was pleased to talk to the sole American I could find, the Indian teams just blew me away. One station included vertical takeoff or landing (VTOL) aircraft, magnetic-levitation trains, magnetic shoe soles, zero-gravity toilets, electrical generators, and gosh-knows-what-else. And all of the designs were new to me, some beautiful, all ingenious.

Another Indian team had a design that was plain marvelous. They began by explaining that the purpose of this station would be to exploit the resources of Mars. For those unfamiliar with the concept, most of these stations include some sort of spinning to provide artificial gravity via centripital force (for an example of this, fill a bucket partway with water and then start twirling it in a horizontal or vertical circle--the water stays in the bucket, it doesn't fall out). Most of the students' designs used a torus (donut) shape, where occupants' heads are pointing inward toward the center of spin and their feet point downward toward the stars. This group used a "double dumbbell" design, where there are two sets of platforms pointing inward toward each other and spinning around a common center. In this case, the platforms (inner and outer) look like symmetrical, radially-sectioned lily pads complete with organic-looking tubes that connect each radial section to the central core. Beautiful. And even the interiors of these platforms were different from anything I've seen in the West. Rather than housing and farmland laid out in a Cartesian grid, if you flew overhead, the land would almost look like some sort of modern art--a combination of strange symbols and paisley. Farmland, housing, medical facilities, and other land uses have no distinct pattern to them. Like the station, they are nearly organic. I loved it, and I wish these kids from Punjab would've spoken more slowly, as I missed some of what they said. But it was all very, very cool.

So the message I took away from the Space Settlement Design contest was that I had cause for hope in the future. I've expressed more than a few concerns about the state of education in the U.S. and the world at large. What are we teaching our kids? What are they learning? Will the things they learn be useful for helping us build a better future? The teams of Indian kids and the lone American also gave me pause. All of these kids worked with teacher-mentors to ensure they were getting things right; and yet the American kid worked alone. Are they learning these things in class, or are they self-directed learners? (I suspect the latter.) Is interest in space settlement that far gone in this country? Meanwhile, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) wants to send men into orbit by 2015 and to the Moon by 2020--the Constellation timeline, oddly enough--and they just might do it. Regardless, all of these kids were dreaming BIG and thinking positively about the future, and it was refreshing to see that.

As a nation, the United States has many challenges ahead--not just in the next four years, but in the next century. A uniform government education system might work, if that system was dedicated to achievement and learning, not just meeting test scores and keeping union members happy. But if we don't end up with a government-controls-all system (which I fervently hope will be the case), then we owe it to our students to provide them the most freedom--bounded by informed wisdom--to learn what they need to learn to make the future better. As one of my fellow ISDC participants put it, it's a little disconcerting that space settlement design might be the next thing we outsourced. I wish those kids from Punjab well, but I hope for the sake of my own country that that will not be the case.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great blog Bart!