Magazine article National Defense

Help Wanted

Magazine article National Defense

Help Wanted

Article excerpt

Slowdown in new programs erodes space industrial base

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - The U.S. space industry is losing critical skills and talent and is on a "down- ward trend," said Gen. C. Robert Kehler, the leader of Air Force Space Command.

Engineers and other technical experts - once plentiful in the heydays of NASA and the space race - are growing harder to find.

That's "not to say they don't produce amazing products with incredible capabilities - they do . . . but there are issues that we have to be mindful oí" Kehler said at the Space Symposium here.

Futurist and author Alvin Toffler said the United States is losing its edge when it comes to a field it once dominated. It's not exclusively an American world anymore, he said. "It's a Chinese world. It's an Indian world.

"We're going to have to get used to the fact that we're not going to be number one anymore. For a long time, we had no number two," Toffler said.

A wave of retirements in the space community has been predicted for many years. Alarms about the shortage of engineers, scientists and other technical experts from the baby boomer generation have sounded for a decade or more.

The only bright spot - if it can be called that - is that some of the these space technologists are putting off their retirement due to the sharp drop in the value of their pensions and 40 IK accounts during the past year.

"With the 40 IK issues, we see a lot of people postponing their retirements," said Wesley Covell, president of defense programs at Harris Corp.' s government communications systems division, Melbourne, FIa.

But that would be a temporary respite, he said. "I'm very concerned about science and technology and our ability to do this type of work in the long term," he said.

Aggravating the situation is the government's slow acquisition process, many vendors at the conference pointed out.

Kehler told reporters that the decline of the U.S. space industrial base is having some concrete effects on the nation's capabilities. The slowdown in work has caused some second- and thirdtier suppliers to leave the business. They are eventually replaced by less experienced companies.

"The fact of the matter is, until they get more experience, we sometimes see parts fail. That delays us, [and] causes us problems," he said.

And in space, failed parts can't be replaced as easily as a broken transmission on a truck. A failed part may mean a malfunctioning multi-million dollar satellite.

Space Command has had to be more vigilant with the quality of these secondary suppliers, he said.

Lt. Gen. John T. Sheridan, commander of the Air Force's Space and Missile Center in Los Angeles, said one-third of the center's civilian workforce is eligible to retire by 2010. That will create a shortage of middle managers, he said. But again, the poorly performing economy is having an unintended consequence.

"For many years, it's been pretty difficult to hire government civilians in L. A. because of the better paying contractor jobs out there," he said. "The current state of the economy has actually helped us to attract new, experienced individuals into our workforce," he added.

The Space Foundation's 2009 annual report notes that the United States has "first rate technical schools and universities and flagship public universities offering aerospace engineering degrees in all 50 states, yet despite these strengths, the United States . . . potentially faces a diminishing pool of indigenous talent. Older aerospace employees who retire are not being replaced by new recruits at a sustainable rate."

Because space programs are so costly, the governments of spacefaring nations continue to drive programs that attract professionals into the field, the report noted.

As for the United States, total government spending on space programs is edging up, the foundation reported. The 2008 budget was estimated at $66. …

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