That’s a good question for the student studying to become an aerospace technician and current aerospace technicians. With the ending of the Space Shuttle program, tens of thousands of aerospace technicians, engineers, scientists, and managers have been thrust into the job market in one large mass with limited jobs available. Many unemployed or soon to graduate aerospace technicians prefer to stay in Human Space Flight, but it is quite probable that our nation will not be launching astronauts on American launch vehicles for the foreseeable future, quite likely 10 years or more for a myriad of reasons. Though there is a deep well of talent in this workforce, it is difficult for the aerospace industry to absorb these workers all at once, especially the fledgling commercial HSF industry. The competition for jobs is fierce with so many thrust into the labor market in such a short time span. So where do you go from here?
There are always options available to the aerospace technician that they can pursue. Some are not as preferred as others in the beginning, but they do exist. We will explore some of those options in this post.
Look outside of HSF. Though Americans are not being launched anymore on American launch vehicles, unmanned launches are still occurring. Satellites, planetary probes, cargo vessels, and telescopes are still being designed, built, and prepared for launch. The rockets used to launch these payloads still require aerospace technicians. You may not think it is as glamorous as HSF, but it is still a job that falls within your education and experience. Not many aerospace technicians in this world can say over dinner conversation that they helped prepare or launch a rover to Mars. Why can’t you be that aerospace technician?
Look outside your area. There are many spaceports throughout the nation and the world. Those spaceports are covered in the previous post here. Continuing your career sometimes requires relocation. It is a fact of life for many professionals in this economy and should not be looked upon as a burden but as an opportunity. Many companies look favorably upon an employee who is willing to relocate to help the company succeed and it helps them to find the best talent in a larger pool than just the local communities.
Continue your education while waiting for the number of people looking for work to thin out. This serves two purposes: 1. It makes you more marketable by having more education, and 2. It buys you time as new aerospace programs get started and as the labor pool shrinks due to people moving away, being hired, retiring, or changing careers. This would be a good time to supplement your aerospace credentials with an A&P license, a B.S. degree, additional certifications, etc. SpaceTEC would be a good place to start in seeking additional certifications.
Start your own business. In difficult economies, sometimes the best way to find work is to create your own work. Some Space Shuttle Technicians have recognized various needs in the aerospace community and have started their own businesses to meet those needs. These needs may have been created by poor customer service from established companies, or it is a need that has not been recognized yet. Starting your own business is full of risks and should be approached with a well thought out business plan, additional studies on other aspects of business such as accounting and marketing, etc. The local Small Business Administration should be of assistance. Do not bet your life savings, home, etc. without a thorough understanding of what your market is and how you’re going to meet it. Most new businesses fail within the first five years, so think this through carefully before selecting this option.
Change careers. This is a radical option that not only requires you to possibly obtain new certifications or degrees outside of your area, but to be prepared to enter a new job on an entry level basis that most times include lower pay. It can be a rewarding move and you will be surprised at how many of your aerospace skills will be applicable in your new career. Everything from the aerospace culture, such as how to approach problem solving, working in large organizations, etc., to your actual skills you use on the job can benefit you in your new career. New careers to consider could be teaching industrial arts or other subjects, working in a non-aerospace industry, health care industry (especially technicians who work on medical equipment), to maintenance jobs. The possibilities are actually endless. Also, changing careers does not have to be permanent. As the job market in the aerospace world opens back up, you can return to aerospace and bring along the additional knowledge and experience you obtained while working outside of your first profession.
There are many other options out there besides the four listed and you don’t have to limit yourself to just these four. The point is to never forget that you always have options to succeed and thrive. The amount of options you have is limited only by your imagination and your drive to succeed. Treat this downturn in HSF as an opportunity to “problem solve” this obstacle to your career. It is not the end of the world and the skills you have already learned as an aerospace technician will be a strength you will always carry no matter where you go. The knowledge and experience you have obtained so far in your career is yours. You own it, you earned it, and you can use it in many varied ways.
By Dr. Al Koller
This week marks the end of an era in American space exploration. Bathed in history and befuddled with “politics as usual”, our human space flight program appears poised to take its place on the dusty shelves of the past, along with the Shuttle Program and everything that has gone before it.
Although I can understand the reasons surrounding the end of Shuttle and the beginning of new commercial activity, it’s amazing to me that folks act as though what is happening is different from anything that ever happened in the history of humankind. Bull…
How do you think Vasco da Gama felt when he was denied the chance to capitalize on his experience as the first to sail from Portugal around Africa to India? Portugal became an instant leader in the 15th century sailing world, only to fade into oblivion, never to regain the prominence it once held. Rome suffered the same kind of fate, along with dynasties and nations throughout history. If you look, you can find innumerable examples where choices that changed the world were made while ignoring what seems now as gigantic errors but which, at the time, were made with the best intentions.
While we watch in silence the choices being made today for our space program, no one really knows what paths that MIGHT have been opened to us will never see the light of day – at least not in our lifetime. What makes it even more difficult to accept are that (1) we do so with the full knowledge that our only path forward will require that we rely on an old enemy that was never a match for our best minds, and (2) we will cede to others a leadership role that was hard won and never really used to its full potential. We are better than that, and we know it… Why, then, are we allowing this to happen? We have options.
Space exploration for our country never spent one penny outside our atmosphere. Every bit of it paid salaries here on earth. Space never consumed more than it gave back in the form of spin-off technologies we all use every day without even knowing from where it came. The people who took those first steps in space were part of an adventurous few who carried the flag for the rest of us and made our country the idol of the rest of the world. Worst of all, we now have better technology than we could even dream of then, and there are no good reasons to allow ourselves to drift into complacency other than laziness and the lack of the will to lead. To surrender without a real plan for the future is madness…
If you care at all about where we are headed as a nation, take a look at a man who helped found the Civil Air Patrol a long time ago. His name is Gill Robb Wilson, and he wrote a poem called “The Will to Lead” that was published in a 1960 issue of FLYING magazine. Few will remember him or his poem, and even fewer will really care – but ignoring that lesson will leave us poorer and without any explanation for what we are about to see happen to us.
Whoever said that those living in democracy get what they deserve was probably right. That’s because we get what we choose, and we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves when history asks, as it did of da Gama, what in the world were we thinking when we abandoned our legacy in space.
R.I.P., NASA and our U. S. Space Program. What a ride it might have been.
The Will To Lead
Gill Robb Wilson
First published in Flying Magazine 1960
So long as this is a free man’s world
sombody has to lead;
Somebody has to carry the ball in word
and thought and deed;
Somebody’s got to knock on doors which
never have known a key;
Somebody’s got to see the things that the
throng would never see.
Hotter than thrust when the boost is hit,
somebody’s faith must burn;
And faster than mach when the rocket’s lit,
somebody’s mind must turn;
Somebody’s got to get the proof for what
the designers plan;
And test the dreams that the prophets dream
in behalf of their fellow man.
Somebody’s got to think of pay in terms
that are more than gold;
And somebody has to spend himself to buy
what the heavens hold;
Somebody’s got to leave the crowd and walk
with his fears alone;
Somebody’s got to accept the thorns and
weave for himself a crown.
It’s ever thus as the ages roll and the
record’s written clear–
Somebody has to give himself as the
price of each frontier;
Somebody has to take a cross and climb
to a rendezvous
Where a lonesome man with a will to lead
can make the truth shine through.
Of the many things I have learned while working as a technician at Kennedy Space Center, the most important and most challenging one is managing your time. A typical shift at KSC is about 8 hours long, but if you take into account the time off for meetings, breaks, answering emails, etc. your actual workday to perform your primary tasks is about 6 hours. That’s not much time to start, work, and complete a job. I thought I would share with the technicians and soon to be technicians what I’ve learned to be successful in getting through my day.
Before doing the job:
- What jobs will you doing that day? Usually your shop lead will give you your assignment for the day and it’s up to you to get off to a good start.
- Read the Work Authorization Document or WAD. What does the job want you to do? What certifications does the job require? Are you certified to do the work? Do you have your cert card with you to prove you are certified?
- What process covers the job? Find the proper process that applies to the job and either set aside the book with your tools or print out the paperwork. Read the process; don’t assume you already know it or have it memorized.
- What paperwork will you need to print out and add to the WAD? Get the paperwork printed out and verify the process version matches the version in your process documents.
- What tools will you need to do the job? After reading the process you should have a pretty good idea what tools you need. Are all the tools in your tool bag already? Do you need to visit Logistics to pick up materials and tools? There is nothing more wasteful of your time than having to stop your job in mid-work to go find a tool, material, or another page of paperwork. Set aside the tools and materials you need for the job beside your process and paperwork.
- Where is your job going to be? Since I worked on the thermal protection system of the shuttle, I needed to know where my tile/blanket/cavity was located on the ship. After all, there are only 24,000 tiles alone on a typical shuttle! Print out a map of the location on the ship for your job and go find it before moving everything there.
- Check out the work area. Is there room for all your tools and other items? Will you have to stage some of the things nearby? If so, you will want to lay out your items in the order you need them to make the flow of the work go smoother.
- Safety. Do you need a harness, goggles, smock, etc.? Are you required to tether your tools and if so, then place tethers on all the tools you’re going to use for this job ahead of time.
- Have a bag handy to place waste material in and set it aside with your tools.
- Will you need a Quality Control Inspector for your job? If so, this would be a good time to put in a call for one. Let the QC see where you’re going to be working and have them go over the WAD and other paperwork with you. A QC is there to help you follow the process, not “ding” you. I at first had a problem with someone looking over my shoulder while I worked, but have learned to value that “second set of eyes.”
- Take all your paperwork, processes, tools, etc. to the worksite or the staging area. Set up your bag to place waste material in. Tape off and cover anything you need to avoid any accidental damage to the ship or hardware you’re working on. If you are working above the floor, then have some sort of catch/drop barrier placed below your work area and the floor to ensure nothing falls on the ship or people below.
Doing the job:
- Be aware of your surroundings while doing the job. Always be mindful of your safety and the safety of others.
- Make sure you have adequate lighting to work in. As my friend Larry Tanner used to always say, “Light is your friend.”
- Clean as you go. Nothing worse than to be standing in a pile of trash and potential FOD while working. Once you produce waste, pick it up and put it in a trash bag. You will find there is less to clean up after the job ends.
- Always refer to your process and WAD.
- Stamp as you go. Stamp the WAD as you complete each task. DO NOT STAMP AHEAD OF YOUR WORK STEPS. That can get you into some big trouble.
After the job is over:
- Go over your paperwork and ensure that everything that was to be stamped has been stamped and dated.
- Clean up your work area.
- Return all tools and unused materials to their proper places.
- Go back to your work site and do a final walk down ensuring that nothing has been left behind.
- Pat yourself on the back for a job well done!
If any other aerospace technicians would like to add to these suggestions, please feel free to do so in the comments section.
Last night Gregory N. Cecil, M.A.S., a 2003 alumni of the SpaceTec program (the Gemini Class) appeared on The Space Show hosted by Dr. David Livingston. The interview went so well that it went a half hour over the scheduled time. There were many good calls and email questions from all over the world and Kennedy Space Center.
You can download to the interview or listen online at the following link:
http://archived.thespaceshow.com/shows/1452-BWB-2010-11-03.mp3 This is the direct URL to the interview.
You can also subscribe to The Space Show podcast on iTunes and download this interview and many other worthwhile interviews to listen too.
A while back I was a guest speaker at an aerospace technician class. This was the first semester for the class in a two year program. I asked the students where they planned on working after graduation and to the man/woman, they all said “the Space Shuttle program” at Kennedy Space Center. I pointed out the program would be over by the time they graduated in two years and a look of surprise and dismay crossed their faces. I then asked if they were aware of and could name other space ports in these United States of America and they indicated they were not aware of any others. I proceeded to teach them about the other space ports and to explain that the skills they were learning will be needed there also.
Kennedy Space Center gets all the publicity because of Human Space Flight, but there are currently nine space ports in use and 3 proposed ones. The nearest space port is just right across Mosquito Lagoon from KSC at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS). The primary companies that launch there are United Launch Alliance and SpaceX. (SpaceX also has a launch facility at the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean.) Many unmanned NASA probes, government, and commercial satellites are launched from this facility at multiple launch pads. Also Pegasus launches are conducted from there. CCAFS has been launching rockets since the 1950’s.
Further up the east coast is NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility at Goddard Space Flight Center. Wallops is responsible for launching sub-orbital and small orbital launches along with testing and research. Wallops has been in business launching these smaller rockets since 1945.
Just next door to Wallops is the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS). MARS launches both commercial and government payloads. MARS has been launching rockets since 2006.
Moving out west, there is the Nevada Test and Training Range responsible for launching sounding rockets and test vehicles. It was formally known as Nellis Air Force Base and is also home to Area 51. They have been launching since the 1950’s along with many other activities.
The next launch facility is in New Mexico called Spaceport America. It’s most famous resident is Virgin Galactic which will be launching tourists into sub-orbital flight within the next year. Spaceport America also does sub-orbital commercial launches. Spaceport America has been an operating spaceport since 2006.
California has three spaceports, including one that is mobile. First is the Vandenberg Air Force Base which specializes in ballistic missile tests, along with the typical government and commercial satellite payloads. Vandenberg has been launching rockets since the 1950’s.
The second California spaceport is the privately owned Mojave Air & Space Port. This facility is famous for the two historic launches of Space Ship One. Mojave Air & Space Port has been operating since 2004.
The third California space port is Ocean Odyssey Complex owned and operated by Sea Launch. Ocean Odyssey Complex is a converted oil rig with associated support ships whose home port is in Long Beach California but does the actual launches at the equator in the Pacific Ocean. Ocean Odyssey Complex has been doing commercial launches since 1999.
If you don’t mind the cold, there is the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska. Kodiak is operated by the Alaska Aerospace Development Corporation and specializes in satellite and ballistic missile interceptor launches. They have been in operation since 1998.
There are also numerous spaceports throughout the world if you feel like working outside of the country. You can find a list of these spaceports along with the appropriate links here.
The point is, though Shuttle work at KSC (though some other work there continues) is coming to a standstill, there is still lots of work at CCAFS (for example SpaceX and ULA) and other spaceports throughout the country and the world for certified aerospace technicians both in government and private companies. Don’t limit your talents and skills to just one spaceport. Think outside of the box and the area when it comes to pursuing the career you have chosen.
These are challenging times right now for our nation’s Human Space Flight program and the aerospace workforce in general. With the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program and the future of America’s HSF in doubt, there is cause for pessimism. But, I don’t think that all is lost or doomed.
I’ve been a “space nut” ever since I first saw Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon and when I was first hired to work on the Space Shuttle fleet, it was a dream come true. I used to get up every day, kiss my wife goodbye, and say to her “I’m going to work on my spaceship!” I remember reading an article once quoting an engineer working on the Mars Rovers who when asked at a dinner party what he did at work, he replied, “I drive a rover around on Mars. What do you do?”
These are the unique experiences we all have. Out of the billions that live in this world, just a few thousand of us have had the experiences being part of space exploration. Every day was an adventure at Kennedy Space Center and though some days the particular job I was doing may not be “fun”, KSC was still the coolest place to work. The same applies at all the NASA centers no matter if you were working in HSF or planetary probes, etc. Those memories and experiences cannot ever be taken away once you have lived them.
Working in a space program requires you to be a problem solver. While others in this world were trying to figure out what to wear for the day or what fast food restaurant to have lunch at, you were figuring out unique problems and solving them so you could once again “touch the heavens” and make our world a better place.
With the unknowns facing our workforce right now, those problem solving skills need to be used to the fullest extent, not just in a space program, but in your own personal lives and careers. How can you survive the time between programs? How can you influence what HSF program will come into being? What can you do to make yourself more marketable? If you are currently a student in an Aerospace Technology program, you might ask, “Is there any hope that I will get to use my degree in a space program?” For those questions and many others, I have some humble advice.
Increase Your Vision
Kennedy Space Center, or Marshall, or Houston, etc. are not the only space centers in this great world of ours. Too many people become focused on the one space center in their area that they forget that NASA, private companies, and other countries have space centers throughout the world. With English being the common language for airlines and science in this world, you already have an advantage being able to speak the language. You can apply to other space centers and combine your adventures working in space flight with living in a new place.
Be a Problem Solver Outside of Work
What can you do to survive while awaiting the next program? You have an experience that most people in this world will never have. You may want to try to find a way to communicate that experience and share it with other people. You can do this with a blog, lectures, write a book, or maybe teach. As a technician, why can’t you build a “Launch Control Center” with bells, buttons, and blinking lights to enhance some child’s experiences with his model rocket he got for
Christmas and sell them? The media and the government may not be too interested in space flight right now but Joe Public still is. You are truly limited by only your imagination on how to share these experiences with other people and profit from it.
Be Politically Aware and Active
Whether you like it or not, politicians determine our programs and fund it. Nearly all of these politicians couldn’t tell the difference from the nose of the Space Shuttle to the tail. Most people in aerospace think that only CEO’s and rich entrepreneurs have exclusive access to our politicians, but that is not true. You have access also through email, regular mail, town hall meetings, phone calls, etc. You can find your contact info at this website. You just need to input your zip code. Use these methods of communication to teach your politicians about space exploration and why it is important to our nation. Remember, these politicians actually work for you and they need to hear from you. Ask them what HSF plan they support. Did you know there are four leading HSF plans out there right now? Educate yourself as to what each of these plans are and decide for yourself if any of them are right for our nation or if another plan not being thought of right now is better and let your politicians know. Tell them why you think the plan you’ve chosen is the right one and be specific about it. Ask them if they support your plan and don’t accept a general answer such as “I support the space program.” Ask for specifics. Be a frequent communicator and teacher with your politicians. Just because you are a technician does not mean you don’t have credibility to lobby your politicians for what you think is right for our nation’s HSF program. Vote for and donate to the campaigns of the politicians that share your dream. Support them by working in their campaign office as a volunteer.
Be Aware of Your Industry
Learn as much as you can about all the different space programs, ones that are currently in place and ones that are coming online. Broadening your knowledge about the different space programs out there gives you an advantage to seeing opportunities to find work that others may miss. Check out their websites, get on their press release email lists, network with people inside those programs, go to various space websites and participate in the comment forums. If you work on satellites as a technician, did you know that NASA has programs that send satellites into the upper atmosphere via balloons? How can your skills translate to that program if your current program ends?
Don’t Stop Learning
Some people think that once they obtain their degree and learn their job, they don’t need to learn anymore. You should always be stretching and growing or you risk being left behind once your program ends. If you are a technician on the Space Shuttle, think about learning about robotics, composites, etc. Look at other space programs, both current and future ones, and make an educated decision as to what their needs will be, and then get certified or degreed in those areas so you can be more marketable. The worst thing you could do is just sit home and collect unemployment waiting on a space program to call you. Get out there and add to your education and pursue those opportunities.
Most Importantly Do Not Give Up Hope
“Chance favors the prepared” as the old saying goes. Being an aerospace technician has already given you the most important skill set and that is problem solving. Make use of it in your pursuit to further your career and you will be surprised at the potential opportunities that will come your way.
Please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments area as to what our community of technicians can do to weather these uncertain times.