It has been 40 years since NASA first placed man on the moon. Not only was the space agency still young, but most of its employees were fresh out of college.
Today, less than 20 percent of NASA's employees are under the age of 40, leading one report to call the agency "mono-generational."
This leads to a disturbing question: As the baby boomers retire, who will get astronauts back to the lunar surface?
Thick sideburns, clean-cut but full heads of hair and fresh-looking faces framed by chunky, black glasses. That was NASA of the 1960s.
Considering all the flag-waving young celebrants, the photos of Mission Control just after Apollo 11 safely parachuted into the Pacific on July 24, 1969, could be mistaken for a Fourth of July frat party.
You can't help but think they look a bit young to be sending men to the moon. Compared to NASA today, they were.
"There is a photograph that shows splashdown inside the control room," says H. David Reed, a flight dynamics officer during Apollo 11. "There's a guy standing by the console with a huge piece of paper. That's me. I got the signatures of everybody in that room and in the back room. Every time I did that I would ask them their age. Well, I sat down and ran it out. The average age the night we had splashdown was 28."
When Space Shuttle Atlantis left Earth on May 11, 2009, the average NASA civil servant's age was 47.
"When NASA had to fill those positions, there were no flight-dynamics officers for space," says Doug Ward, a NASA public affairs officer during the Apollo years. "So what they did is find these bright young kids out of college who had degrees in physics and mathematics and they'd hire 'em and train 'em."
At the time, the space agency was a lean, mean, get-a-man-to-the-moon machine. Formed in 1958 under the Eisenhower administration after the Soviet Union put Sputnik into orbit, NASA was created, in part, to close the perceived gap between the two Cold War powers in the areas of science and engineering.
Three years later, President Kennedy articulated a specific mission for the agency: Put a man on the moon before 1970.
For whiz-kid graduates like Apollo 11 computer specialist Jack Garman — who left the University of Michigan in 1966 with an engineering physics degree — NASA was just about the only show in town.
"It was basically contractors doing Apollo work — places like IBM and Raytheon — or NASA," Garman says. "The high-tech world basically revolved around NASA and defense."
Nowadays, it's a much different picture, both for NASA as an organization and for tech-savvy wunderkinds.
For one thing, the Soviets have dissolved and the Space Race is long settled. NASA no longer works in the national spotlight on a singular, focused mission under tight, presidentially decreed, deadlines.
Instead, its index of current missions numbers in the eighties [http://www.nasa.gov/missions/current/index.html], ranging from shuttle flights to complete the International Space Station, to unmanned Mars exploration, deep-space probes, Earth-looking satellites and an eventual return to the moon.
And NASA is no longer a young person's agency.
According to the agency's public affairs office, 18.9 percent of the 18,000 full-time civil servants working at NASA are under the age of 40; to date, the average new hire in 2009 is 41 years old.
A report from the NASA Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation (available here [http://www.opennasa.com/2009/04/30/shaping-the-nasa-workforce-for-2020/]) calls the space agency "mono-generational," meaning it is comprised almost entirely of members of the Baby Boomer generation.
As NASA plots a return to the moon by 2020, with a workforce hurtling toward retirement, a dearth of young talent could pose a serious challenge.
NASA's New Faces
Unlike the generation that put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon, aspiring aerospace engineers of the 21st century have a glut of career opportunities.
"There are a lot more options out there now," Tom Ahlstrom, a 24-year-old NASA engineer, says.
He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2007 with a degree in engineering mechanics and aeronautics.
"I looked at the larger aircraft companies, Boeing and Lockheed, and, of course, there are the smaller aerospace companies like Ball Aerospace," he says, "and there are smaller entrepreneurial options as well."
Kate Mitchell, 24, works in NASA's Spacesuit and Crew Survivals Systems branch as part of the team designing and testing the wardrobe of America's next lunar explorers. She says that private space companies, such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, have attracted many of the best and brightest aerospace engineers in recent years.
Mitchell, who majored in aerospace engineering at Purdue University, also points out that tech companies like Google and Apple are willing to take a risk on a highly intelligent aerospace engineer.
But while Mitchell and Ahlstrom considered other avenues, both decided to pursue careers at NASA, primarily because they'd already spent several semesters working there.
As participants in the agency's Cooperative Education Program, they alternated semesters studying at their universities with three to six "work tours" spent in full-time jobs at NASA. More than 50 universities have partnered with NASA on the co-op program, which started in 1961 as a sort of farm system for the space agency.
Tammie Wright, a human resources specialist at Johnson Space Center (JSC), says that in 2009, 84 percent of students who completed co-ops with NASA returned to work full-time.
"The reason I came to NASA is it's exciting work," Ahlstrom says. "Every job has its down and boring days, but when you step back and look at what you're actually accomplishing here — and the aerospace companies are doing some amazing things — but when you're actually sending people into space and building an International Space Station in orbit, that's exciting stuff."
Erica Nyman, also 24, alternated her final semesters at Penn State University with co-op stints at JSC. And she too headed right back to Houston when she graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering.
But whereas Ahlstrom and Mitchell work in NASA's Engineering Directorate, Nyman is a trainee in the Mission Operations Directorate — meaning she spends her days preparing for a role as a flight controller for future spaceflight operations.
Her dream, she says, is to be at the console in Mission Control when American astronauts finally return to the moon.
As part of their training, Nyman and the other future Mission Control officers — a group of 20 trainees, the majority of whom are fresh out of college — are required to read "Flight" by Chris Kraft, who became NASA's first flight director in his early 30s, and F"ailure Is Not an Option" by Apollo 11 flight director Gene Kranz, who joined NASA at 27.
Though 40 years have passed since that original cohort of engineers and mission controllers put the first Americans on the moon, a new generation of crackerjack kids have their sights set on the lunar surface — and they still revere their legendary predecessors.
"Those people served as a foundation for mission operations," Nyman says. "They're an inspiration for people like us. They didn't have the technology that we have today, and it's amazing what they were able to do with what little they had."
That said, the new young guns behind the consoles and in the engineering labs aren't about to let the ghosts of NASA's past hog all the glory, nor are they content to merely follow them to the moon.
"People say, 'We've been to the moon before, why do we need to go back?'" Mitchell says. "I see it as a stepping stone to go further. We're looking at going and staying — not just landing, staying for two days, and doing some spacewalks.
"Going back and building up lunar outposts and really learning to live away from the Earth environment over a long period of time, which will help us continue to reach out and explore other bodies in our solar system."
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