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November 9, 2007 12:06 PM   Subscribe

What's it like working for NASA these days? What will it be like in 5-10 years?

I'm a sophomore in college (electrical engineering) thinking of working for NASA some time down the line. I'm fairly sure I know what to do to get there (I have friends who have done internships, I think have a fairly good idea what they value in recruiting), but I wonder what it's like to really work for them.

Do any MeFites work for NASA? Are there any good (candid) blogs out there by NASA employees? How do people inside feel about the agency's funding prospects in the future? How crazy is the government bureaucracy? What's the culture like? What are the strengths of the various locations?

Oh, and to be clear, I'm not an aspiring astronaut. Couldn't pay me enough to get strapped to a giant pillar of fuel to visit some specks near our own.
posted by phrontist to Work & Money (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Check your MeFi Mail.
posted by spec80 at 12:37 PM on November 9, 2007

I worked at Goddard for ten years (mid-70s to mid-80s) and Ames also, between 1997 and 2006. Nice but it always depends on the project you're working on. Both centers were really great for me, at the time. (Ames, even better, because of course it's in California.) In general, like everything, it gradually got worse. Oh and I also achieved a dream and worked at JPL for a few months in 1987. May be different now, but it really sucked then because the parking lot was inadequate, creating a high-stress struggle for the few available parking spaces, every morning.

Because of their locations, you couldn't pay me enough to work at Marshall and especially JSC. The remoteness of Dryden would also be a tough sell.

Note that I was never a government employee, always a contractor, and in many ways (but not all) their situation's worse than the government people's.
posted by Rash at 12:41 PM on November 9, 2007

Best answer: I met someone earlier this year (an engineer) who had worked for NASA in Florida, but moved to Washington D.C. to work for a private aeronautics contractor instead. His take was that NASA is now largely administrative, and that all the cool engineering is being done by private companies with government contracts. (I found his descriptions of huge abandoned offices at Kennedy Space Center full of circa-1980's office equipment quite fascinating.)
posted by junkbox at 1:13 PM on November 9, 2007

All these questions (and more!), I could answer if you stated which part of NASA you are looking into (which facility, which research line etc).
posted by carmina at 1:32 PM on November 9, 2007

Response by poster: carmina: I understand that they're all very different - but out of ignorance I don't really know how they're different. So I don't really have any basis for a preference.
posted by phrontist at 1:45 PM on November 9, 2007

check yer email.
posted by carmina at 1:48 PM on November 9, 2007

Because of their locations, you couldn't pay me enough to work at Marshall

Why do you say that?
posted by jca at 2:18 PM on November 9, 2007

Just out of curiosity, why all the "check your mail" responses? Are NASA employees not allowed to talk about this stuff? Or is it just the usual "don't say anything about your current employer on the internet" thing? (This is super-interesting question - I'm sad that the answers are coming through privately.)
posted by vytae at 2:26 PM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have access to a source, but it seems like it isn't wanted. Oh well!
posted by spec80 at 2:36 PM on November 9, 2007

I'd also like to say that I'm quite interested in the responses and if they could be made public, that would be much appreciated!
posted by PuGZ at 2:46 PM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Really -- I hope phrontist summarizes these private communications "for all mankind."

jca -- because it's in Alabayama.

posted by Rash at 3:17 PM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Er, "summarizes these private communications" here, in a followup post.
posted by Rash at 3:19 PM on November 9, 2007

As far I know from my brief dalliances with the space industry in Canada (including some people who work with/for NASA a lot), I think junkbox summarizes the situation well.
posted by blacklite at 3:22 PM on November 9, 2007

Best answer: I personally wanted to avoid providing unneeded info. Also in a private email I can give more details. But here you have it.

So you want to work for NASA? I work for NASA-GISS. There are three types of employees in our facility (and most others from what I know). Civil servants, university folk and contractors.
Civil servants are more senior staff with their own line of research and demonstrated ability to bring in funding. They have permanent positions, okay salaries, benefits and 10 days of vacation a year.
The University folk are people who are affiliated with a certain department in a nearby University with all the freedoms and slavery that come with it. They are on "soft money" i.e. you get your own funding or someone (usually a civil servant) to sponsor you. The contractors are the technical employees, the computer administrators, the grant administrators and some special cases. They also depend on funding from the civil servants.

NASA funding --as a whole-- will always be good with occasional ups and downs. However, for a particular line of research within the Agency, funding may change. Climate (where I work) got a huge cut (25%) since 2003, although NSF and NOAA funding towards us increased. Satellite research, some of the most pioneering work NASA's done, is dwindling, again because of administration preferences. This could easily be reversed with a new government. In fact, evidence is that it will change. Space science becomes more and more instrument-development oriented. But again this all depends on political priorities.

Re : bureaucracy. Yeah, okay there's a lot. But you get used to it and there is a mechanism in place to help you with it. I'd say if you come in as a grad student or a postdoc, there's little you have to deal with. In fact at such levels you will really feel like a graduate student/postdoc anywhere else. You take classes, you do your research, you pass the comps etc. As a civil servant you have the most to deal with, but by then you are sort of an expert.

Re: culture. Culture? Oh, I see. Now this depends entirely on the group you are. Read up their websites, their publications records and their press releases to get a feel of the scientific part and whether it is to your liking. Visit the places and meet with personnel from all levels. Listen carefully and observe how people interact. Some places have strict security rules that can be annoying but usually they are necessary. Sometimes they go overboard but you will not be alone in this. There is in fact a general trend of (justified or less so) paranoia going on in major research facilities in the country -NIH, NASA, NOAA etc, but that's another story that should not worry you now. In other words, you approach this the same way you do any University graduate school. The slight difference is that you can continue working there after you complete your degree, unlike Universities where you leave to find another post elsewhere.

NASA-GISS is mostly climate science these days, climate change, climate modelling, environmental change, aerosol measurements and satellite research. There are a few people still working on Astrobiology, Astrophysics (Mars and Titan). Here are the jobs offered now. For graduate studies (Masters or PhD) you will have to apply to Columbia University, either the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, or the Dept. of Applied Physics and Mathematics or the Earth Institute. You are then paired up with NASA faculty from GISS (if you want) which, I suggest, you contact by yourself during application period. If you want tocome in as a technician or a computer administrator/staff, you will earn A LOT MORE money down the road. Finally, there are summer internships which you might want to look into, most NASA facilities offer them or you can do a short-term project during your senior year.

and on preview, Kennedy Space Center in Florida was *always* operational. The cool research is done in JPL, Houston and Washington. If it is not done at GISS, that is.
posted by carmina at 3:45 PM on November 9, 2007 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I spent 3 years at LaRC, leaving about 3 years ago. In retrospect, it felt very static. There were a great many civil servants holding down secure positions but doing nothing. Meagre funding had people making do with aging resources. It had nothing like the vibrancy of the academic research environment that I'm in now. My experience taught me that NASA today lacks youth. I decided not to stay.
posted by rlk at 4:54 PM on November 9, 2007

Best answer: I always really wanted to work for NASA. The summer after my junior year I got a job with one of the college summer internship programs and I was wicked excited. Then we visited a lab at Johnson where the director showed us a project that some of the "junior engineers worked on, because we don't let them touch the real stuff for ten years or so."

Meanwhile, my college roommate was working for Boeing doing space shuttle stuff making twice as much as I was.

Work for a contractor.
posted by olinerd at 5:07 PM on November 9, 2007

In review, that was an incredibly pessimistic post I just made. I am actually optimistic about the future of NASA. Bush's mandate that they return to the moon as a step to Mars is frankly laughable given the fact that no budget increase accompanied it, but NASA's response is admirable. They chose to get out of ISS as soon as possible, and retire the Shuttle, returning to a cheaper and more reliable manned vehicle design. If the Constellation Program is carried through, it will be a rebirth of American manned space travel. Combine this with impending die-off of the sedentary civil service who joined during the heyday of spaceflight, and we may see a rejuvenated organization in a decade's time.
posted by rlk at 5:08 PM on November 9, 2007

because it's in Alabayama.

Hmm. Maybe if you learned more about Marshall, Huntsville, and BRAC, you wouldn't feel that way.
posted by jca at 10:49 PM on November 9, 2007

I would entirely agree with rlk on the civil service status quo, three years ago. I do not now because of "full cost accounting". One of the things that Bush's administration did was to enforce the idea (which was mature for quite some time) that permanent folk have to bring in grants, amounts equivalent to their salaries. Yes, they cannot be fired, but they can be (and they are!) moved to other lines of research, demoted and oh, yes, I saw that happening, fired (forced to retirement). Some people hyperventilated for a while when this happened, but got over it quickly, because it was something that had to be done. The civil sector had become too large and too old as rlk says. Also, younger scientists become civil servants more easily these days.

Finally, as per academic environment, at the grad level working for NASA is indistinguishable from University.
posted by carmina at 8:52 AM on November 10, 2007


A lot of cool missions to the Moon, including NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, are taking place or soon will be. I think NASA's future is fairly bright.

As far as blogs, the best-known is NASA Watch, which does post interesting news but reminds me of Jackie Harvey these days. Keith Cowing had better contacts before Mike Griffin took over.
posted by lukemeister at 11:23 AM on November 10, 2007

For the future graduate students: NASA fellowships.
posted by carmina at 6:07 PM on November 16, 2007

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