Skilled to Work: Space industry leaders discuss workforce needs leading up to Artemis 2024 goal

Hundreds gathered at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) this week for the 12th Annual Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium.

Posted: Sep 12, 2019 10:14 PM
Updated: Sep 12, 2019 10:36 PM

With the countdown to meet the 2024 deadline of the first Artemis mission to the Moon, leaders in the space industry are focused on getting the workforce in place to reach that goal.

Hundreds of them gathered in at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) this week for the 12th Annual Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium.

The The "Manufacturing Workforce" panel discussed many challenges and opportunities to growing the workforce. Ball Aerospace Director of Engineering Operations Dorothy Rasco described machinists and technicians as "artists in their area."

Jennifer Boland-Masterson travelled from the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to be a part of the panel on the manufacturing workforce. She said a challenge for her facility is changing the mindset around this work.

"In the past, you would hear manufacturing technician and they think, oh, it’s a button pusher. The machine opens up, you take parts out, you throw some stuff in and the machine does its thing. Well, this is very highly skilled, very detail-oriented process to build the SLS rocket and we need to have folks that can do that kind of work and get people excited about it,” said Boland-Masterson.

She and the other panelists agreed that more needs to be done to inspire young people into the workforce.

“The hardware sells itself, but (it’s) understanding what you would do with that hardware as a technician. So I think it’s getting those high school students into the factory to see,” said Boland-Masterson.

Panel moderator John Vickers said the additive manufacturing programs at Jemison and Grissom high schools are key examples of how public-private partnerships can help.

“Those students will amaze you. They're doing work that is far above what would be the norm for me when I was in high school or probably around the rest of the country. That's an excellent example of what’s probably going beyond what’s happening in the rest of the country,” said Vickers, the principal technologist for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC).

One of the audience members asked the panel about bringing more minorities into the picture. UAH Professor Emeritus Phillip Farrington said the best way to start is by going directly to them.

"Helping them see and having that vision and expanding their view of the world and the possibilities are out there will help provide those opportunities,” said Farrington.

Following Presidential Adviser Ivanka Trump’s visit to the Alabama Robotic Technology Park this week, Vickers said there is a national spotlight on how apprenticeships can help in the United States, like they have in Europe.

“I think apprenticeship programs, like what was announced here yesterday, they’ll certainly help automotive, but there’s a lot of crossover with the technology with what’s going on in automotive, what’s going on in aerospace, what’s going on in other industry sectors as well,” said Vickers.

Next week, Vickers said he will be traveling to NASA headquarters to discuss in-space manufacturing opportunities, both to benefit NASA as well as other commercial needs.

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