What happens to NASA’s space shuttle workers after Atlantis?

July 11, 2011

This piece is part of a leadership roundtable with four expert contributors — Wharton Professor Peter Cappelli, Space Policy Institute Professor Emeritus John Logsdon, NYU Professor Kerry Sulkowicz, and former NASA leadership program director Gail S. Williams — about the leadership challenges of shuttering NASA’s iconic space shuttle program.

Closing down a program as big as the space shuttle leads to lots of workforce issues, both in the moment and for the future. 

We may be more inclined to remember the space shuttle accidents than the much more numerous safe and successful missions; still, we all know the program. It has been in the news for decades. If you went into a restaurant anywhere in America and told people you worked on the space shuttle, they’d know what it was, and they’d want to hear about it – the inside stories but also what you did at work. How many of us could say the same thing about our jobs?

The reason this matters is that it’s a big motivator for the employees. Feeling part of something significant pushes us forward. One of the rewards for work, if we’re lucky, is that attention we get from other people. We think the work we do must be important because we are part of something big that they understand. NASA has done a smart thing by honoring the program as it closed down and, in the process, all the people who have worked on it. Some of that attention will buoy employees for awhile and even spill over to those who have not worked on the program. But it won’t last forever, and it will be hard to replace.

An obvious challenge raised by the end of the program for employees is, what comes next? NASA is doing a good job trying to articulate a vision of future space programs and new projects. Yet this creates a different kind of motivation and appeals to different kinds of people. Those who are designing the new projects and get a kick out of such a challenge might find this even more motivating than working on the space shuttle program, which after all has been going for more than 30 years. But others, those who are tasked with the more traditional, routine work, may find it less motivating to be attached to projects that have not happened yet and that the public doesn’t know about.


Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor professor of management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

This takes us to the question of NASA’s talent needs for the future. The skills required to develop a new project are quite different than those required to maintain and execute an existing project. What happens to the employees that have been working for decades on the latter when the work shifts to the former? 

This is a question that businesses face almost every day when products and strategies change. For a long time, the typical corporate response was to assume that most employees can move into the new roles. Maybe some training and time will be required to get oriented, but that’s worth doing. The more recent approach has been the opposite: The assumption now is often that new and very different tasks require new and very different employees. Move out the old and bring in the new.

In the case of NASA, however, there are reasons to believe that bringing in a new group won’t work so well. Putting together complex projects like these requires a great deal of tacit knowledge—things you can only learn by doing. And for the most part, there’s no other employer out there doing anything similar. This isn’t like Microsoft hiring from Google.

So the tricky task both for the individual employees and for NASA’s leadership is to figure out who doesn’t have the interest or disposition to move onto something new; as well as who has irreplaceable knowledge that the organization will need. Yet making those judgments even before the new projects get underway is an almost impossible task—which may mean the best solution is to keep everyone who leaves close to you, not only the retirees but those who move to jobs elsewhere, so you can ask for their help when you need it. Unlike a private company, my guess is that NASA will get that help if they ask for it, in part because of the memories of the space shuttle program and how they handled closing it down.  

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