The People of JPL

The laboratory, as Murray and his senior staff recognized, was at its base a collection of people. Who were they? The lab's disciplinary diversity confounds any identification of a typical employee. Hardware designers, software programmers, flight navigators, mission controllers, systems managers, quality control engineers, and research scientists all mingled in flight projects, not to mention the myriad smaller programs pursued at the lab. Several characteristics of JPL staff nevertheless may be discerned against this background.

JPL's reputation could attract the cream of technical talent. The relative lack of military connections may have provided an additional attraction for young scientists and engineers in the 1970s; a survey of lab staff in 1980 found that between 10 and 20 percent would not want an assignment to defense work.87 But JPL's declining prospects limited its ability to recruit new staff, and instead the core of veteran lab staff remained intact, with the average age advancing steadily into the forties; by 1981 well over a quarter of scientists and engineers were over fifty years old.88 The staff remained also largely white and male: in 1976 minorities filled 13 percent of full-time positions and women 16 percent. Asian ethnic groups made up the largest proportion of minorities, followed by Latinos and blacks.89

The JPL labor force in this respect followed the demographic of science and engineering disciplines nationwide, and it had almost twice the proportion of minorities as NASA as a whole.90 The lab nevertheless resolved to improve minority and female representation. In 1971 Pickering had started an affirmative action program and in 1975 created an Advisory Committee for Minority Affairs, to report to the director on minority concerns. Murray continued both programs and established a similar Advisory Council on Women.91 But while Murray and Terhune gave affirmative action their full support, the program depended as well on attitudes of lower-level staff, not all of whom necessarily shared the commitment.92 And during a period of national debate over affirmative action, which saw the Supreme Court strike down minority quotas in the Bakke case of 1978, some JPL staff, including some minorities, repudiated the lab's program as a "degrading" quota system that undermined merit-based advancement.93 It did, however, increase minority representation to 17 percent and female representation to 21 percent by 1980.94

The lab needed affirmative action in promotion as well as hiring. Murray noted that the improved statistics for minority and female employment did not show "the very serious problem . . . of upward mobility."95 In 1977 minorities constituted 27 percent of clerical staff and 21 percent of technicians, but only 14 percent of professional staff and 9 percent of managers. The numbers were worse for women: 88 percent of clerical staff, 11 percent of technicians, 8 percent of professionals, 9 percent of managers.96 The age demographic clogged the managerial ranks with senior people still years from retirement, affecting promotion not just of women and minorities but of younger staff in general.97 By 1977, Caltech electrical engineer John Pierce was warning Murray that "very good people have left JPL."98 Unlike industry, JPL offered no bonuses or stock plans and a constrained salary scale, and unlike academia, no lab staff enjoyed tenure. Competition for technical talent with industry in particular increased as the aerospace sector revived in the late 1970s.99 Lack of individual recognition further handicapped employee relations. JPL's work and culture stressed collective instead of individual achievement. As flight projects manager Robert Parks put it, "The result of several modestly competent efforts all directed to the same goal can be much greater than the brilliant efforts of an equal number of extremely competent people if they are pulling in opposite directions."100

How did JPL get individuals to work toward collective goals? There were several possible motivations: the chance to advance national priorities, the romance of space exploration, technical and scientific challenges, and personal ambition. Selfish considerations proved stronger. A staff survey in 1980 asked what factors should influence selection of lab missions: lab employees rated national and social needs the least important and personal satisfaction and career goals the most important.101 But the work itself enticed many lab staff. Lab managers identified two general categories of people at JPL: "One part includes those individuals who are inspired by the Space Exploration Program itself to make their careers at JPL. They tend to be associated with mission and system analysis and design functions. The other part includes the expert engineers who build their careers around challenging application of forefront technology. They tend to be more heavily in the subsystem and operations development functions." The attraction of the work helped compensate for lack of material rewards: mission designers, noted their manager, "do not believe that JPL is competitive in terms of salary and benefits. (They stay here because they like the work.)"102

Not all JPL staff were starry-eyed about space. Half the lab consisted of administrative or office staff, technical assistants, and other support staff, for whom the paycheck remained a prime motivation. Some of these nontechnical employees echoed public apathy toward the space program. In the midst of the Viking encounter, David Golidy, a twenty-eight-year-old janitor, took a cynical view: "At first, I thought it was great, but, more and more, I wonder. I mean, it's just a political game, another step in the great space race with the Russians. Like, look at the moon. What did we get? Nothing but rocks. And now, here we go again." Ron Goldbach, a twenty-two-year-old security guard, likewise failed to catch the excitement of Viking. "I've worked here maybe three months and, so far, the most interesting thing that's happened was a rat. . . . It was a big rat and it ran right across the auditorium and jumped into a secretary's wastebasket."103

In one respect JPL perhaps more closely followed industrial than academic employment patterns: lab staff did not have to possess a PhD to succeed. By the late 1970s about half of the 4,000 or so lab staff were scientific/engineering professionals; of those, about half had advanced degrees, including 350 doctorates—a substantial number in absolute terms, but less than 10 percent of total lab staff.104 The relative scarcity of PhDs may have contributed to putdowns from Caltech faculty; but few on campus would have questioned the capabilities of, say, John Casani, who had just a bachelor's degree. JPL engineers believed that on-the-job training more than made up for a lack of advanced degree and that graduate schools did not necessarily teach the sort of specialized skills, such as spacecraft navigation or systems engineering, that planetary exploration demanded.105

Whether inspired by the mission or ambition, JPL technical staff did work hard toward the lab's goals, often at great personal sacrifice. Hundred-hour work weeks took their toll, and a saying in the space-science community held that "any sizeable project generates a divorce for everybody that's really involved."106 Despite the cost to families and marriages, this commitment produced the esprit de corps that had long characterized JPL culture. By 1980, however, the lab had changed in subtle but important ways from two decades earlier. The lab was larger than ever, surpassing the earlier peak of the late 1960s with more than 4,600 staff.107 With size came a change in culture, affected also by a lack of launches: in the late 1970s the lab launched only the Voyagers in 1977 and Seasat in 1978. As Jack James pointed out, the dwindling launch rate threatened "continuity in lore and know-how"; the result was "a decline in what was once the 'JPL spirit,'" which James traced to poor morale after layoffs, NASA harassment after Ranger, and poor recognition for individual contributions.108

James might have added: a shortage of social interactions. The lack of launches precluded the bonding experience provided by the combination of intense work and play off-site. James would have known: he himself was a cigar-smoking raconteur prized at parties for tales told in his Texas twang.109 Lab staff complained about the lack of communication among various groups and of informal social interaction in general.110 The lab newsletter exemplified the trend as the breezy, often bawdy accounts of fishing trips and "Canaveral Capers" in the 1950s gave way to dry administrative reports in the 1970s.111 Perhaps it was just a matter of getting older: the energetic, twenty-something new graduates of the 1950s now had families and mortgages and lacked both the priorities and the stamina to work night and day and then go out for drinks. John Casani, a hail-fellow-well-met sort, did try to provide a social environment on Voyager, finding any excuse to throw a party and blow off steam. But the sheer size of the Voyager project, with its several hundred workers, let alone the thousands of lab staff in different programs, precluded the sort of camaraderie that earlier characterized the lab and instead contributed to the depersonalization of the large organization.


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