Monthly Archives: April 2007

The great space industry workforce shortage hoax

I'm going to come back to this later -- it's sleep time on the East Coast -- but I think that the oft-trumpeted impending shortage of engineers in the space industry workforce is a myth.

I've just come across an article in Issues in Science and Technology, "Where the Engineers Are," by Vivek Wadhwa, et al. The quote that most sticks in my mind, though I have not finished the article:

"...we found no indication of a shortage of engineers in the United States."

I hope to read the article soon, and do a bit more research on the topic. I'd really like to blow someone's mind with this concept -- at the least, raise the question -- because I've heard the "workforce gap" refrain so many times from space cadets and space realists without considering if it was a verified claim. Considering it now, it seems to exist of its own momentum, passed on by people who are anxious that their beloved craft may be in peril. (On the contrary, this would be a good thing because it seems there is a ready supply of young engineers to take over; however, perhaps there are other aspects such as production that are lacking.)

It looks like this article raises another issue that I wondered about: how can the number of engineers in India and China increase so dramatically without incurring problems with the quality of the number of engineers produced. Meaning: (1) is the student to instructor ratio dramatically increased? (2) or is the number of instructors dramatically increased? In either case, more engineers does not mean more better or equal quality engineers.

This doesn't mean that I'm entirely pleased with the US education system either -- it's not bad, but there is no facet of our country that I would want to improve more than this. To me, this topic of the "shrinking workforce" builds into education: people -- some with lobbying influence, I presume -- wave their arms at the hot topic in hopes of making a windfall on it, and eventually the hot topic takes on a perpetuated life of its own, supplanting what should always be the most important point: to provide the highest quality education possible, in my opinion, regardless of the intended industry in which it is applied.

All hypotheses for now, however, I call shenanigans; let's have a look under the hood and see.

AIM in orbit

Wednesday was an interesting day in the office. In the afternoon, we were invited to the auditorium to watch a live feed of the launch of the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesophere -- better known as AIM -- mission. AIM was launched on a Pegasus XL from Vandenberg AFB.

Orbital does quite a few things, but Pegasus is the only product that I was really familiar with before joining the company. Before going to the auditorium, I didn't expect many people to attend; I imagined: surely everone else has seen a Pegasus launch. (But I knew that eventually all of the engineer/gophers would peek their heads out of their offices/holes and come for the free snacks, at least.)

For a long time, the only feed on the screen was of the L-1011 -- say it like "L ten eleven" --  Stargazer sitting on the runway with Pegasus slung underneath, the occasional cutaway to stone-faced people in the mission control room speaking on microphones; hours of checklists for those few seconds of fire. Eventually the L-1011, sensing the ennui, left the runway and climbed to cruise altitude. Knowing this with a sort of extra sense, people began to fill the room, the screen now consisting of rotating images of (1) the carrier plane and rocket from below-right; (2) the rocket nozzle from the belly of the plane; and (3) the stone faces, the missile men, the telemetry diviners.

Beside me, a friend who previously worked at the FAA whispered along with the various countdowns. The group murmured satisfaction as Pegasus waved its tailfins on cue. Mostly: anticipation.

Pegasus dropping from the carrier plane is absurd because at that moment you see it for what it really is -- a big, heavy, steel canister -- falling out of the sky. The gods must be crazy. Ignition and boost is an elegant affair, not the herk-and-jerk that I expected, but a smooth glide first forward and down, then up and away. That first ignition, then the second, then the third were each met with affirmative murmuring -- not celebration, mind you, because nothing matters at the end of the ride unless the spacecraft detaches from the third stage. And it did separate, received by only a polite applause in the auditorium, perhaps because in the end it's only a few seconds of fire after months of development. (The joke goes like this: How many engineers does it take to launch a rocket? One, the guy who presses the button.)

(And, of course, all of the popcorn was gone.)

Apparently things are going well with the mission; an excerpt from an email sent at work today:

The launch was perfect.  AIM has a requirement to maintain a precise sun synchronous orbit, and does not have propulsion for any fine tuning. Therefore, we needed a precise orbit insertion from Pegasus, and they nailed it.

Anyway: great to see a standing-room only crowd watch a guy press a button.