The flight of gifted engineers from NASA


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Rather than work in NASA, the best young engineers today are increasingly heading to get jobs at private companies like SpaceX and XCOR.

It is a long article, worth reading in its entirety, but this quote will give the essence:

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. No one sat around talking to friends in the morning, “another level from what you see at NASA,” she said. “They’re very purpose-driven. It looked like every project was getting the attention it deserved.”

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. She thought back to the attrition she saw firsthand at Johnson Space Center and how understaffed divisions struggled to maintain operations.

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. With that choice, no wonder the decision to go private is increasingly easy.

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2 comments

  • Stuck on Sidelines

    If the gal winds up at Goddard, it could (?) be more rewarding than being flogged 60-80 hours a week for SpaceX or anyone. There’s a time and place for that; when it’s all the time, that’s a problem. Customers and stockholders won’t tell you that their expectations aren’t worth your health, and the loss of earning power, friends, family, and independence when you lose it. And that’s if you don’t croak like one engineer did for Apollo. ‘Comes a point where it doesn’t matter how much you love your work, or thought you did.

    That said, the manned flight side of NASA didn’t impress me. Politics enters into every engineering decision to the point of near-paralysis, and folks are more into appearances and keeping the gates open than putting out a top-notch product.

    Your program can get canned on either side; you’re less likely to get canned with Uncle. Best of luck to her.

  • Pzatchok

    So your best advertizement for working at NASA is that its easy with no overtime and great benefits.

    I thought engineers wanted to get into actually doing something worthwhile in life other than just bringing home a paycheck.

    I guess busting your fanny to see something you designed and built finally get used and function at 100% is not a good goal in life.

    I guess desire and dedication don’t mean anything. Maybe we should run out and tell all those physicians out there that working overtime to become a doctor is not worth it. Just become an orderly and have no responsibilities or pressures. Its no big deal you’ll still be in the medical field.

    Just like NASA engineers are still in the space flight field. Oh wait they don’t really design build or fly anything anymore. They just contract all that out to companies like Boeing and Lockheed.

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