Opinion: NASA’s Brain Drain in the Post-Shuttle Era Is Damaging the Agency

AdminCadet: The brain drain occurring at NASA is a huge concern.   Especially in the human space exploration arena.  Young folks are joining the agency less and less – either by their own decisions or because NASA has no slots to give them (due to the constant push from Washington to decrease NASA’s numbers) – and many are outright leaving in frustration after they come to NASA.  In addition, our contractors who have worked by our side are being laid off right and left.  For example, when the Shuttle Program was cancelled, tens of thousands of United Space Alliance, Boeing, Lockheed, etc. contractors, our brain trust for human space flight design and ground operations in America, were let go from Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center, and other NASA centers – all of that huge talent and expertise vanishing in just over a year and scattering to the winds with the blessings of Washington and little-to-no protest.  And finally, older experienced NASA folks, many who have worked for NASA for decades, are being encouraged to retire or take “early outs” by their management, and many of them are doing so.  I know, because I am one.

I retired from NASA at 56 years of age about one and a half years after the Shuttle Program was cancelled.  I’d been working for NASA for 33 years, from right before the first flight of the Shuttle Program to the last and beyond.  Working for NASA in the human space exploration program was all I had wanted to do since my early teens – a dream that started when America first landed on the Moon.

I tried to stay on at NASA after the Shuttle Program ended.  I lasted about a year and a half. I just couldn’t take the lack of any true mission, the constantly changing requirements, the ever increasing cancellation of design projects even when the projects were successful, the scrambling for what little budget was available between projects, the James Webb telescope over-runs eating into human space exploration budgets, the Congress using NASA as a work program for their states without really caring what anyone is working on, the budget battles in Congress between Commercial Crew and NASA (so that no one is now being funded to sufficient levels).

Let’s be honest – the situations described above are all really symptoms of a complete lack of any logical direction being handed down from “on high”.

I think one of the worse things that made me finally bow out of the Space Program was the absolute disinterest by our United States President in anything related to human space exploration. He keeps telling the world we are going to Mars in the 2030’s.   But he okays no new infrastructure to get us in that direction except for continuation of the Orion capsule at JSC and Marshall’s huge SLS rocket (both projects which the President originally tried to cancel when he cancelled the Constellation Program but was stopped by Congress).   And both projects are underfunded.  And don’t get me started on the Asteroid Retrievel/Redirect Mission (ARM) currently being touted by Washington – never in the history of NASA have we had to contend with such an ill thought-out mission mandated by our Administration which has no real pay back except to string the Orion and SLS programs along for two decades.  But when we suggest that the next truly logical step to get to Mars is to first go to the Moon to build up our expertise and experience (a mission all of our international partners are clamoring for us to do),  the President’s response is: “Moon? Let’s be honest. Been there, done that…”  Excuse me, Mr. President – aren’t we glad Louis and Clark and the courageous Americans who came west didn’t have that attitude or many of us wouldn’t be here.

I am terribly afraid NASA has been forced into a downward spiral that will be very difficult to recover from. Our Administration, in just a few short years, has decimated the finest space program the world has ever seen.   I’m very concerned our NASA space program is spinning downward faster and faster as our talented and experienced space cadets give up and disappear from the agency.

The following excellent article talks about some examples of this concern.  It was published by houstonpress.com and is entitled: “Space Flight: Increasingly, Gifted Individuals Are Opting For the Private Sector Over NASA”:

http://blogs.houstonpress.com/hairballs/2014/08/space_flight_some_of_the_best_and_brightest_engineers_are_leaving_nasa_for_the_private_sector.php

One quote from this article is as follows:  “… the average American taxpayer thinks NASA receives nearly a quarter of the federal budget. In reality, the agency gets less than 0.5 percent. During the 1960s, when funding for NASA was about 4.4 percent of federal spending, it delivered the moon landing and kickstarted the international computer industry, raking in ten times the cost of space programs in returns. Yet in the post-space-race new millennium, NASA’s budget has become increasingly difficult to defend in Washington. Its public-relations message of hope, discovery and pushing the boundaries of human potential into the final frontier isn’t hitting home for politicians….”

A final sad thought on my part:  Maybe we are seeing the end of an era.  Maybe, if things continue as they are and Washington doesn’t wake up and start supporting its NASA space agency, NASA will become a collection of “think tanks” and “after thought” launch facilities.  If that happens, then we will have to look to the new “commercial” side of American’s space agency to continue our human exploration of space to the Moon and beyond.  And, if that is our destiny, we’d better hope Commercial Crew (Boeing, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada or others who may come along) and the follow-on missions that come from their achievements are successful.  Either that, or humankind will need to rely on the Chinese, Japanese, India, and the Europeans to take the human space exploration baton from us and go forward.

If you had asked me four years ago, when our beautiful Shuttles were still flying and we were completing the build of the great International Space Station, if we’d ever get to this state, I would have shook my head in total disbelief.  Of course not – Americans are proud of their space program!  I’m afraid my answer today would not be so positive or naive.

NASA Meatball

Article credit: Houston Press / blogs – Susan Du / author – Aug 13, 2014; Image credit: nasa.gov.

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2 thoughts on “Opinion: NASA’s Brain Drain in the Post-Shuttle Era Is Damaging the Agency

  1. Over the last 4 years, I have had the opportunity to work with many students at universities through Capstone projects and well as serving as a mentor for Co-ops and interns. I would say that over half went to work for private sector because they saw NASA as “undecided” what to do. A few students told me that they were disappointed that it is not the NASA that they had learned in school. I agree!!

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