Job Cuts At NASA
An old rocket scientist like me worries a lot about JOOOOOBBBBBSSSSS IIINNNNN SSSPPPPAAAAAACCCCCEEEEEE. At first glance, it does not look good when the headlines read “8000 jobs, mostly contractors, could be cut at NASA” once the Space Shuttle is retired in 2010.
On second glance, I’m not quite so pessimistic. “Don’t overreact to those numbers.”, says Bill Gerstenmaier, an associate administrator for NASA.
The number of civil servants is expected to remain roughly the same, but dramatic job cuts are possible among private contractors as NASA transitions to the Constellation program, which is developing the next-generation vehicle and rockets to go to the moon and later to Mars.
Constellation isn’t scheduled to begin flights until 2015.
I’m a little amused by the report. Neither job cuts nor job growth at NASA are things on which you bet the rent. When politicians and their spokesmen speak in terms of budgets that are 2, 3, even 5 years down the road, the one thing you know won’t happen is what they’re telling you will happen.
And in this case, the one overwhelmingly large determining factor next to which all others pale in comparison is the upcoming election. The direction will come from the new president, the budget will come from new Congress (where the House has a bigger say and the Senate fights hard for theirs) and none of that is fixed. Well, actually, it appears that it’s reasonable to expect a Democratically controlled House next year, but that’s pretty much all you can say with some confidence.
In the long run the wishes of the people are carried out with surprising fidelity (and isn’t it cool that it works that way). My take on the “wishes of the people” is that NASA will carry on with somewhat higher than starvation budgets, but not much more. NASA certainly won’t see a repeat of the glory days of the ’60s, no matter who gets elected.
– Unless life is discovered on Mars or Europa or Enceladus, of course. Then all bets are off.
In the commercial world the news looks a little better, if not completely bullish. We’re going to see more jobs come out of commercial space, but for a real boom to happen, we’d have to see far more companies involved than just Virgin Galactic. The good news is that it’s starting to happen.
For the last few years, commercial suborbital spaceflight has been virtually synonymous with a single company: Virgin Galactic. The technical brilliance of Scaled Composites and Burt Rutan, as demonstrated by SpaceShipOne and many other aerospace projects, coupled with the marketing expertise of Virgin, made Virgin Galactic the clear leader in the emerging suborbital market for tourism and other applications.
Technological monopolies tend to get challenged rather quickly.
Last week XCOR Aerospace made its latest move into the suborbital spaceflight market, announcing a vehicle, dubbed Lynx, that could enter service within two years. The efforts of XCOR and others are resulting in a wide diversity of vehicles, leaving it up to the market to determine which one—or ones—work best.
The real point is that if only Burt could win the X-Prize, it wasn’t because he was the only guy smart enough to design a vehicle to do it. It was because he was the only guy with the reputation of being smart enough to be able to raise the money to do it. When it comes to space ventures, the hardest part is always raising the money. The technical challenges generally pale in comparison.
He’s right, of course.
But in my opinion to call this a “space race” isn’t the right spin, because that implies a government make-work effort of a high-tech sort. This is economic competition, and for the consumer at least, that is a good thing. There won’t be as many jobs in the short run, but there will be more benefit. The jobs will come in the long run.