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Making Spacecraft: Skills, Labour-Processes and Cosmic Society

Cosmic Society: Back to the Future

The US space programme was motivated by a romantic dream of a future cosmic society. Today, NASA’s Journey to Mars still aims to enhance scientific knowledge of the universe but a new market-based form of space-travel is emerging. This is ‘NewSpace’. Entrepreneurs now see space-humanisation as a means of accumulating capital, with ‘Space tourism’ a large part of this project.

This article argues for a reversion to the old NASA model of work and state intervention. Social, economic and environmental crises on Earth will not be resolved by escaping into outer space. The priority should now be to understand our ‘cosmic society’ and our place within it.

The Labour- Process of Making Spacecraft

The goal of NASA’s Orion project is ambitious. Astronauts in this craft will be travelling to Mars and back by the 2030s, the success of which hinges on the labour process.

The Orion craft is built to very high specifications. Its heatshield, for example, is built to resist the Earth’s atmosphere as the crew module returns to Earth at 3,600 mph. The shield consists of three sub-components welded together and covered by a fibreglass surface with 320,000 cells. Its production is very labour-intensive with each cell being filled by hand.

Machinists usually make a large number of small but varied parts, all of which must fit very accurately together within the very limited confines of a spacecraft. This process is very demanding. It involves high levels of skill from the machinists and constant interaction with the engineers who designed the module and specified the materials to be used. In the workshop, engineers and machinists constantly collaborate over the sizes and forms of these parts and how they are to be made. During this process the machinists undertake processes such as stamping, welding, die-casting and grinding the required parts. The machinists know precisely which tools to use for these processes, including drills, lathes and presses. Once a component is made, a machinist checks with the engineers that the part fits well within the engineer’s overall designs.

An engineer’s understanding is based on knowledge in books and manuals while the machinists have more intuitive kinds of understanding based on experience of how different tools can be used to work on different materials, such as steel, brass, aluminium and copper.

A continuing, two-way process is now underway, with engineers proposing designs and materials and the machinists making the parts specified by the engineers. There is significant testing and variation involved in making these parts and this means that the ‘normal’ process in today’s workshops, that of programming a computer to make these parts, is not a viable proposition.

If a part made by the machinist still does not reach the exact specification the machinist tries again. More discussion and more work ensues. If an element proves impossible for the machinist to make to the required accuracy, then the engineer’s drawings and specifications are changed. In this way, a successful product is eventually made by the skilled machinist.

Labour-processes often entail close and intense surveillance by management, this being the way in which labour power is harnessed in the interest of capital-accumulation. The elements of a spacecraft, however, are often made in relatively small workshops where the over-riding priority is to combine workers’ skills with those of the engineers to make a spacecraft capable of encountering the extreme conditions of outer space. The familiar processes of de-skilling and numerical control do not apply. Accuracy and collaboration are priority here and close worker-surveillance does not feature in this form of process of spacecraft-manufacturing. However, many worry that “NASA jobs are being eliminated and going to the private sector” where jobs are poorer.

Space Barons and the Cosmic Future

The skills of the NASA machinists are used and tested by the very ambitious demands of the Orion project. But this is not the case with machinists working for the so-called ‘Space Barons’, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson.

Bezos and Blue Origin

Jeff Bezos is the owner of Amazon and the space company Blue Origin. He has been awarded the accolade of ‘The World’s Worst Boss’ by Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, who describes Bezos as “representing the inhumanity of employers who are promoting the American corporate model. The message to big business is back off, you are not going to mistreat workers”.

Bezos’s business model differs from those of Musk and Branson. So far, his Blue Origin has focused on achieving commercially viable, sub-orbital flights. The aim was to target and expand the seemingly fast-growing tourism industry. But now Bezos is working on a much larger project. His company has been selected by NASA to collaborate with other organisations such as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. The idea is to create a new, ‘manned’, mission to the Moon by 2024

Bezos’s distaste for skilled and unionised workers extends to his machinists working at Blue Origin. In contrast with the practices of NASA, machinists and their skills here are largely neglected. As a past employee noted, Blue Origin is “a great company if you’re not in the machine shop. The machine shop is manned by a team of incompetent people”. Another Bezos employee emphasises the negative ways in which machine shops are organised and directed. “You don’t run a machine shop as if you’re a king. You need employees to give objections and you must listen to them”.

Machinists will be central to the production of a craft travelling into the depths of outer space. But the machinists’ skills at Blue Origin remain neglected by the Blue Origin entrepreneurs. Yet a return to the Moon and distant outer space will surely mean that the skills of the machinists will be needed. But such long-term thinking appears to be anathema for Mr. Bezos.

SpaceX and Machinists

Owned and managed by Elon Musk, SpaceX specialises in the design, manufacture and launch of spacecraft, in direct competition with the spacecraft made by established companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

One of SpaceX’s most ambitious projects is the design and launch of the ‘Falcon Heavy’ and Musk plans on taking astronauts on a return trip to Mars by 2023.

SpaceX’s plans have recently taken a further twist. Musk is now collaborating with NASA. Given Musk’s dedication to the private sector this seems at first surprising. But it is a straightforward means of exploiting the advances originally made by the tax-funded NASA and, in the process, increasing market-share in the space business. Meanwhile, NASA is under financial pressure and grateful for any injection of funds.

Yet, as regards trades unions, Musk adopts a strategy similar to that of SpaceX. He offers his employees SpaceX shares instead of union-membership and has famously argued against unionisation.

Branson, ‘Scaled’ and Virgin Galactic

Branson’s Virgin Galactic invented a novel way of separating wealthy people from their money. His ‘mothership’ will fly to an altitude of 18km (twice as high as regular aircraft) and then release a small rocket-powered spacecraft housing six passengers. And from this altitude Branson’s passengers will observe the curvature of the Earth and, after a brief cosmic sojourn, they will return back to base.

What about the machinists and their special forms of knowledge? This is what makes Branson’s project distinctive. Until recently his company was headquartered in the Mojave Desert, one of the flattest and driest parts of North America. And there, Virgin was physically close to Scaled Composites or ‘Scaled’. This corporation pioneered laminated materials for civil and military aircraft and it continues to make Branson’s spacecraft. Such materials place an extra premium on the machinist’s skills. They are likely to break in unpredictable ways as they are drilled and shaped. The process is difficult, time-consuming and often wasteful. But, since Branson does not employ machinists, this is not his problem.

Branson’s company uses extensive ‘management-speak’ to recruit individuals and their qualities around his ‘mission’. Branson looks for a ‘dynamic manufacturing team’, one made up of ‘strong team players’. Yet, unsurprisingly, such ideals are at best wishful thinking.

Reviews of those working for Branson do not simply repeat ‘company speak’. Instead they report on management-failures and poor treatment of employees. Collaboration around some shared notion of ‘success’ remains largely absent. For example, one avionics ex-employee argues that it is “an amazing company, but they don’t have good management. They don’t have a culture where employees can feel free to bring concerns to management. They are more interested in their public appearance and giving the appearance of compliance than they are of actual accomplishments. The benefits are amazing. Wages are fair. The typical workday is filled with hurdles and work stoppages”.

Another noted: “Work life balance is a joke; overtime, working on weekends, coming in extremely early, and being reachable 24/7 is the norm they imply. They won’t out- front tell you until they are mad at you for not answering their call or seeing their email at 9PM. And it’s not that such behaviour is a priority. It’s all busy work that doesn’t add value”.

Conclusion: Uncovering ‘The Hidden Abode’

Marx referred to ‘the hidden abode of production’. Hidden beneath the froth and glamour of space-exploration and space-travel there remain very serious questions about social relations, skills and materials.

What are the social relations of spacecraft-production? And how are these social relations changing? Many features of Marx’s ‘hidden abode’ are familiar. Relations between capital and labour and the steady penetration of capital into public ownership are as common in the space industry as in any other sector. Meanwhile labour takes the form of vacuous ‘teams’. But, as NASA and its machinists have shown earlier, there is a much more worthwhile alternative. It is that of deepening our understanding the universe while retaining and enhancing the skills of its employees, in particular its machinists.

 

Peter Dickens is a sociologist with affiliations to the universities of Cambridge and Lancaster.

Acknowledgements. Thanks to Brendan Burchell, Emma Dickens, Tristram Hodgkinson, Brenda Mayo, James Ormrod, Matt Taylor, my neighbours the Stronge family and members of the Grandpete Lockdowners. All these people gave invaluable support while I was ‘self-isolating’ and writing this piece during the COVID-19 epidemic.

Image credit: Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash