December’s launch and landing of a SpaceX Falcon 9 marked a new generation in spaceflight — in more ways than one.
Most people who watched the flight recognized that the successful landing of the Falcon 9’s first stage marked a breakthrough in the company’s efforts to make the rocket reusable and thus lower launch costs.
The other new generation could be seen and heard on the SpaceX webcast of the launch: hundreds of young employees who gathered outside mission control to watch the landing, erupting into raucous cheers when the first stage touched down on its landing pad. Even the young employees serving as hosts of the webcast joined in the celebrations.
Indeed, it was hard to find anyone on the webcast who wasn’t young. The exception was John Insprucker, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 product director, who offered updates on the mission, but he was tucked away in an alcove overlooking the factory floor: part of the event, but not of the party.
That scene stands in contrast to one of the recurring concerns about the space industry: the graying of its workforce. In countless reports and presentations, industry officials have warned of the growing average age of workers, with many soon eligible for retirement. At the same time, they agonized that young people seemed more interested in careers in other fields.
One example is a 2015 report by the National Defense University (NDU), which claimed, based on U.S. Commerce Department data, that there were thousands of vacancies for science and engineering positions in the space industry because there weren’t enough people coming into the field to fill them. “The pool available to the space industry appears insufficient,” the report concluded about the industry’s workforce.
In other words, with older workers retiring and new workers seemingly not interested, the space industry seemed headed towards a demographic doomsday.
That doomsday, however, appears to be delayed, if not averted outright. The ranks of SpaceX and many other space companies, in particular emerging firms, are filling with young employees. Many are attracted to a field that appears to have a new found vigor, particularly in the commercial sector.
“It’s not a hard sell to get young people interested in the space industry,” said Minoo Rathnasabapathy, executive director of the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC), an organization of about 4,000 young space professionals. “The fast-paced advancements in all sectors of the industry, and more recently a spark in competition between companies, undoubtedly captures the interest of many.”
Both the industry and the workforce are changing. Many young engineers are drawn to startup companies that look a lot like the Silicon Valley technology firms once seen as fierce competitors for workers. These people are attracted to space startups often because they can make a bigger impact earlier in their careers than in more traditional, larger aerospace companies.
“As large aerospace sort of slams into Silicon Valley, youth is highly respected,” said Patrick Gray, the 23-year-old chief technology officer of WayPaver Labs, a company supporting development of technologies needed for human settlement beyond Earth, and a veteran of several other startup companies, including Moon Express. “There’s sort of a sexiness of being in a cool company that you can really take advantage of.”
Gray offered his advice in a career panel at SpaceVision 2015, a conference held by Students for the Exploration and Development of Space in November in Boston. The conference attracted several hundred students from around the country, who peppered Gray and other panelists, many just a few years removed from college, with questions about how to get a job in the space industry.
More traditional space companies are finding that they need to change to better match the motivations and interests of this new generation. “The sector needs to adapt to meet the needs of young professionals, whose career advancement and lifestyle aspirations are often more important than their pay scale,” said Rathnasabapathy.
The NDU report also argued that space companies need to make themselves appear more interesting to young workers. “Solutions must focus on increasing the appeal while providing a measure of predictability and stability,” it concluded.
That means more of a focus on career development and mentoring programs, as well as early opportunities to play meaningful roles on programs. “Young professionals want to feel like they are participants rather than spectators,” Rathnasabapathy said.
One avenue for that greater involvement is the emergence of new technologies that level the playing field. Small satellites, application of “big data” technologies to satellite data, and additive manufacturing (better known as 3-D printing) give young workers an opportunity to take the lead on projects where no one, regardless of age, has a lot of experience.
“One of the areas that I work on pretty heavily at Virgin is additive manufacturing,” said Kevin Zagorski, a Virgin Galactic engineer working on the company’s LauncherOne small satellite launch vehicle, during the SpaceVision panel. “One of the aspects of additive manufacturing, especially in applications in the aerospace industry, is that there’s not a lot of information to fall back on.
Perhaps the biggest characteristic of the new space generation is its use of the Internet and social networking.
A generation growing up not knowing about life without the web naturally makes extensive use of it, finding like-minded people around the world.
“The main difference between the new generation of space professionals and older generations is undoubtedly access to the Internet and the connectedness it has provided with peers,” said Rathnasabapathy. “It helps them develop international networks and contacts even before finding their first job.”
That globe-spanning connectivity is evident in SGAC itself: its two cochairs are from the United States and Argentina, and its executive office has members from Australia, Europe and North America. Those virtual networks are augmented by in-person gatherings at events like the Space Symposium held every spring in Colorado Springs and International Astronautical Congress held every fall in a different city.
For all the opportunities offered by space startups, the innovations created by new technologies, and the interactions offered by social networks, the new space generation has many of the same concerns as older ones. At SpaceVision, students asked about not just getting a job in the industry, but holding on to it when, at times, they feel like they’re in over their heads.
Matt Cannella, a United Launch Alliance engineer, offered students this advice he received from a pilot: “You hope that your bucket of skill fills up before your bucket of luck runs out.”
Successes by SpaceX and other space companies increasingly populated by young employees suggest that their buckets of skill are indeed filling up.