Machine Design

NASA gets away with blatant age discrimination

The loss of the Columbia Space Shuttle has given rise to questions about the competency of NASA.

Unlike movie heroine Stella, NASA is having a hard time getting its groove back.

In the early days of the space race, I had a lot of contact with people at NASA and had deep respect for them. Today, all my friends and acquaintances directly employed by NASA are gone, and my pipeline is now second-hand information from NASA contractors. What I hear is disturbing.

For openers, NASA is concerned that its workforce of engineers is aging and losing expertise through retirements. But paradoxically, for the most part it refuses to hire seasoned engineers in midcareer who have been cut loose by defense contractors and very much would like to get hired by NASA. The agency is largely replacing retirees with kids just out of school who bring nothing in the way of experience, and they sometimes lack good judgment.

In addition (and here I know the forces of political correctness will excoriate me, but it must be said), NASA has been tripping over its feet striving too hard for diversity. It wants to have a workforce that "looks like America." The problem is that a workforce that looks like America might end up being about as smart as America, which means NASA won't have many bona fide rocket scientists in its ranks.

Another troubling thing is that "a workforce that looks like America" has come to represent code words for: "White middle-aged males need not apply." It has been said NASA is trying to shake the image that it is populated by guys with crew cuts wearing white shirts and neckties.

Age discrimination, however, seems to be endemic to the entire aerospace industry. The CEO of one prominent aerospace company says his firm and others in the business "fill the front end with people right out of school." They do this even though, he admits, it often makes aerospace companies repeat the mistakes they have made earlier. Increasingly, there is no more tribal lore to help avoid catastrophes.

One middle-aged engineer with highly impressive technical credentials has shown me an exchange of e-mails he has had with the human-resources department at a NASA installation. The paper trail reveals a bureaucratic nightmare reeking of blatant age discrimination. To protect my source, I am going to be vague about details, but you'll get the drift of what is going on.

The first document is a job posting from NASA requiring an experienced individual to do exceedingly sophisticated work in a particular engineering specialty. The next document is a copy of his application, which includes a work history that fits the position precisely.

So far so good. But then he received a letter from NASA rejecting him for a different job for which he hadn't even applied. So he sent NASA a letter pointing out the error.

That brought a response that was a masterpiece of obfuscation. The significant thing is that it kept mentioning repeatedly that NASA was trying to fill its positions with people who were "fresh out," meaning fresh out of college. In other words, the agency wasn't going to consider anyone who was middle aged. In my opinion, this stance seems not only to be illegal but also may shed light on why NASA is losing technical competency.

- Ronald Khol, Editor

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