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NASA Space

The Flight of Gifted Engineers From NASA 160

Posted by Soulskill
from the when-NASA-starts-looking-like-the-USPTO dept.
schwit1 writes: Rather than work in NASA, the best young engineers today are increasingly heading to get jobs at private companies like SpaceX and XCOR. This is a long article, worth reading in its entirety, but this quote sums it up well: "As a NASA engineering co-op student at Johnson Space Center, Hoffman trained in various divisions of the federal space agency to sign on eventually as a civil servant. She graduated from college this year after receiving a generous offer from NASA, doubly prestigious considering the substantial reductions in force hitting Johnson Space Center in recent months. She did have every intention of joining that force — had actually accepted the offer, in fact — when she received an invitation to visit a friend at his new job with rising commercial launch company SpaceX.

Hoffman took him up on the offer, flying out to Los Angeles in the spring for a private tour. Driving up to the SpaceX headquarters, she was struck by how unassuming it was, how small compared to NASA, how plain on the outside and rather like a warehouse. As she walked through the complex, she was also surprised to find open work areas where NASA would have had endless hallways, offices and desks. Hoffman described SpaceX as resembling a giant workshop, a hive of activity in which employees stood working on nitty-gritty mechanical and electrical engineering. Everything in the shop was bound for space or was related to space. ... Seeing SpaceX in production forced Hoffman to acknowledge NASA might not be the best fit for her. The tour reminded her of the many mentors who had gone into the commercial sector of the space industry in search of better pay and more say in the direction their employers take." At NASA, young engineers find that they spend a lot of time with bureaucracy, the pace is slow, their projects often get canceled or delayed, and the creative job satisfaction is poor. At private companies like SpaceX, things are getting built now.
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The Flight of Gifted Engineers From NASA

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  • by hamjudo (64140) on Friday August 15, 2014 @01:08PM (#47678987) Homepage Journal
    The talent behind xkcd [xkcd.com] is a former NASA engineer.
  • Wow. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by twistedcubic (577194) on Friday August 15, 2014 @01:16PM (#47679075)

    In Hoffman's three years at NASA, she worked on only one or two projects that would ever see space, which she considers a very poor rate.

    A student who, in three years, has worked on a couple of projects which will possibly see space? To me, that sounds like the stuff that makes parents proud.
  • by Overzeetop (214511) on Friday August 15, 2014 @01:35PM (#47679245) Journal

    I co-oped at NASA Goddard, and we actually built stuff. At Johnson and in most of the Government offices at Kennedy and JPL it's all contractor management. Marshall had some real space work going on at the time. Ames does more aeronautical, iirc.

    I lucked out and landed in a small division that built and flew small expendable payloads and secondary shuttle payloads. We were housed in half of a building that had been converted from a high-bay shop. The other half was still a shop - an actual machine shop - and optical facility. You designed stuff, and then could walk over and talk to a machinist about the project. Finalize a drawing and it might be fabbed on site or sent out, but it came back and got assembled in a clean room that was at the end of a hall of engineers offices. The controls group had benches full of electronics and components - they even did basic balancing and testing of momentum wheels in the same pod as where the offices were.

    It was, possibly, one of the coolest jobs on the planet - and I was there for almost 9 years in all. But there was precious little of that in the agency as a whole. We had been moving more and more to contractors over the years - more than half of the people I worked with side by side were actually contractors. A contract would end and be re-bid, and whoever won would hire 98% of the people who worked for the old contractor and nothing would change except who the agency made out the check to each month. At JPL it's all contractors - when my life took me to LA I found out that they don't have engineers, just staff to manage the contracts with CalTech and the other contractors who do pretty much everything. At Kennedy you can be written up for holding a wrench if you're not a member of the union for one of the contractors there. We got out own cleanroom to isolate our team from the rest of those politics when we did integration at the cape.

  • Job Security (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ThatsNotPudding (1045640) on Friday August 15, 2014 @01:51PM (#47679417)
    Working at Space X would be cool; just like Tesla, until you're part of the 6% summarily shit-canned and told it wasn't a layoff, you just suddenly weren't good enough anymore. I assume this would happen less often or at least far more slowly with far better protections at NASA.
  • Re:Mad Men (Score:5, Interesting)

    by linuxwrangler (582055) on Friday August 15, 2014 @02:06PM (#47679579)

    I grew up at Naval Air Weapons Station (nee Naval Weapons Center nee Naval Ordnance Test Station - bureaucracy at work) China Lake where my father was a top engineer. The base in those days operated much like the private space companies of today. Much of that culture is captured in the book "Sidewinder: Creative Missile Development at China Lake" which describes the freedom to tinker, rebuild and test things from what would have been scrap (radar antenna motors would be resued as the proof-of-concept drive motors for prototype missile seekers, for instance) and to, er, "repurpose" new equipment as necessary. Engineers might not expect to have a desk, carpet or file-cabinet but every one had their own fully equipped workbench chock full of signal generators, scopes, meters and whatever else they needed and they attracted a group of incredible engineers from Cal, Stanford, MIT, CalTech and the like who developed weapons like the Sidewinder, Walleye, HARM, Shrike and more - many of which the top brass hadn't even conceived of but the engineers knew were needed. Sidewinder was originally described as a "local fuse project" and developed skunkworks-style in-house with a variety of volunteer efforts and budget shuffling. It didn't become an official program until 5-years after it was started and was mature enough to demonstrate to Admiral Parsons at the Bureau of Ordnance. Nowdays that would result in congressional investigations and charges instead of praise.

    Sadly China Lake, too, has devolved into knee-deep carpeted program-management offices overseeing outsourced contractors and no longer has the same attraction for the freewheeling inventor that it once did. Fortunately there are still places where the workbench-first ethos still thrives.

  • Re:Job Security (Score:4, Interesting)

    by cbhacking (979169) <<moc.oohay> <ta> ... isiurc_tuo_neeb>> on Friday August 15, 2014 @03:34PM (#47680541) Homepage Journal

    I don't imagine either company has much room for dead weight. Firing the bottom N percent of the workforce every year (where N was occasionally 10%) has been standard practice at some very competitive companies in the past; it really strongly dis-incentivizes slacking off at work (like, reading /. in the middle of the day. Can you imagine?!?).

    If your goal is job security, the government (or a similarly massive and bureaucratic monstrosity) is a good bet.
    If your goal is to actually produce stuff, to get things done, then a place like SpaceX makes a lot of sense!

    Me, I work at an in-between place; small, but not a startup any more. Minimal bureaucratic overhead, but no overwhelming need to keep costs minimal. Specifically, we do information security consulting; as long as we can find work for all our people, employees are how we make money in a very direct and linear sense. On the other hand, sometimes job scheduling falls through and, for reasons I cannot personally control, I find myself on the bench for a week. Thus, /.

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