Attracting the next generation


We hear a lot about how difficult it is to attract a new generation of workers into the aerospace industry. This isn’t the Apollo era, it’s the Facebook/Google/Apple era. Etc.

If that is true, it would seem that Silicon Valley would be as hard a recruiting ground as any you could imagine, right?

Not so, says NASA Ames Research Director Peter Worden from his office in Sunnyvale in the heart of Silicon Valley. “Kids are incredibly interested,” he says, referring to everyone from the K-12 set right through the post-doctorate ranks.

And he’s not just talking about talent that grows up in Silicon Valley, the region roughly defined as stretching from San Francisco south along the Peninsula to San Jose.  

The world’s university students come to work at Ames, which takes a leadership role in several areas for NASA, including smallsats, astrobiology and super computing.

“We have lots of internationals,” Wooden says, referring to his young talent pool. “This is where opportunity comes for them. The ideas are what matters. It’s not your nationality.”

That opportunity arises because they stand such a good chance of getting their hands on a project like the PhoneSat-1/-2, a pair of cubesat-sized (10 cm square) nanosats due for launch Apr. 17 out of Wallops Island on an Antares, the new commercial launcher from Orbital Sciences.

 The big deal about the PhoneSats is that they use the computing guts of smart phones bought at a big box store. They’re early tests of a low-risk, low-cost approach to satellite manufacturing that emphasizes the exploitation of off-the-shelf materials without a lot of fuss about whether they are “space proven.” (NASA’s already testing the concept aboard the International Space Station in its Spheres program.)

Worden says the aim is to arrive at the day when anyone with an idea can find a way onto a satellite by developing a “satellite app.”

“What I really want to do is have one kid in her garage who says, ‘I have an idea [for a spacecraft application] and I’m going to write an app,’” he says.

In other words, the spacecraft version of what high school kids are doing regularly for smart phones.

Ames uses a Silicon Valley trademark of constant engagement as a recruiting tool. In the Valley, if someone overhears you brainstorming in a restaurant and asks to join in, you listen, he says.

The center also tries to make stuff fun, like sponsoring high school teams in robotics competitions and running a space camp.

It’s not rocket science but it is about rocket science.


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