Affirmative Action and NASA

In the 47 years since the last man set foot on the moon, the space program has changed a great deal.  One of those changes has been incorporating mandated affirmative action policies.  These policies have had an incredibly negative effect on both the progress in the space program and the engineers whose careers have been destroyed by them.

The federal government mandates that a given percentage of work on a government contract go to minority-owned businesses.  When building a large and complicated system like a space vehicle, it is almost impossible for a company like Boeing or Lockheed to meet this requirement by hiring out specific design work to small, minority-owned companies.  Even if that were feasible, those companies do not exist.

Enter subcontracting companies.

A subcontracting company is owned by someone of the appropriate race or sex to fulfill the quotas established by the government funding requirements.  Specific positions within the larger space program contract are then given to these companies.  The company then turns around and hires the same engineer that would have worked for the primary contractor.  Given that the larger contracting company is not going to subcontract out managing positions, these positions are always low-/entry-level engineering positions.

There are a number of issues with this.  The first issue is the logistical difficulties these situations cause.  The second is the long-term effects that this has on both the engineers pushed into these positions and the overall space program.  Third is the moral and ethical hazard that such a program represents.

There are obvious problems with a significant portion of your project being staffed by people from a dozen different companies, all working with different rules as to overtime and access to information, as well as different reviewing and salary systems. 

In a world without subcontracting, NASA would hire entry-level engineers, mentor them, and place the appropriate ones on a path to management.  When a conflict arose between a manager and a worker, the worker could be moved to another project.  Talent could be used where it was needed, and every engineer would be governed by the same set of rules.

Subcontracting destroys all of this.  Subcontracting engineers have no tie to the companies they work for at NASA.  The subcontracting company is nothing more than a shell to take advantage of the government requirements.  The larger contracting company sees them not as an asset to be developed, but as a tool to be worked as hard as possible for as long as possible and then discarded. 

A subcontractor's job is guaranteed to end when the contract ends.  He is the first one let go when financial problems arise, is not covered by the company's ethics policy, and cannot be promoted since he is hired into only that specific spot. 

Since a contract at NASA lasts about ten years, someone with a master's degree in aerospace engineering from a prestigious university is made into little more than a temp worker.  A highly skilled engineer will still find himself looking for a new job on the bottom rung every decade or so.  Additionally, the engineer must give a significant portion of his salary to the subcontracting company for the privilege of staffing a position that the government allocated to it on the basis of race.  Compare this to engineers hired as civil servants by NASA, who have much higher salaries as well as job security.

The long-term consequences of this have been devastating for NASA.  A great number of terrific engineers tolerate this employment because they love the space program.  Many others do not.  They leave the space program for better pay, a chance to actually advance, and a future where unemployment isn't a guarantee.  This is a field of extremely intelligent people, and the best and brightest are going to seek out places that reward those qualities. 

What this also means is that NASA loses much of its institutional memory.  Young engineers come into the program, do the lion's share of technical work, and then see the writing on the wall that they aren't welcome there and leave.  Rinse and repeat.  Thus, every project starts largely from nothing, and the engineers have to learn the same lessons all over again.

From a moral standpoint, these engineers have already been discriminated against when they applied to college and when they sought financial aid.  Then, when these engineers seek employment within the space program, we require them to pay what amounts to a taille — a tax from one class of people to another — for the privilege of working that job.  They have no legal protection, have no advancement potential, and are guaranteed to have large stints of no work. 

A subcontracting engineer in the unprotected class can be terminated with no notice and with no reason needed.  Even if he can prove fraud in that termination, he has no legal standing to file a lawsuit in a right-to-work state.  Compare this to an engineer from the "protected" class that can bring the full weight of the state and federal governments against that same company at the mere suggestion of malfeasance. 

Even if he isn't a subcontractor, is the unprotected engineer going to receive promotional consideration on the same level as the protected one?  Not likely.

I have seen these effects firsthand.  As someone with a master's degree in aerospace engineering, I worked as a subcontractor.  I worked beyond my limits to successfully bring projects that were months behind schedule to months ahead.  For this, I wasn't granted the dignity of a face-to-face yearly review, despite company policy requiring it.  I, like other engineers, was made to work late nights and weekends with the hopes that one day this work would pay off with a legitimate position.  Like so many other engineers, I left the space program when the reality hit me that my work ethic and technical ability were not the things that were going to dictate my career.

To my knowledge, the projects I left a decade ago remain unprogressed in that time.

On a technical level, the loyalty of NASA engineers and their love of their work can keep NASA moving forward if these policies remain in place.  However, the quantity and quality of work being produced will be greatly affected.

There is no moral or ethical ground on which these policies can stand.  This is simply a transfer of wealth from one group of people to another based solely on race.  It destroys the careers of promising engineers to pad the pockets of company-owners who have no merit outside the box they check to fulfill the government mandate.

The space program is better than this.  We are better than this.  It is time for these policies to end.

Joshua Foxworth is a candidate for U.S. Congress in District 14 of Texas.

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