Status Report

LESA Bulletin: “You Used to Work Here, But Not Any More”

By SpaceRef Editor
May 15, 2003
Filed under ,

By Dr. William H. Jones

I recently heard an interesting statistic from a source I regarded as reasonably credible: right now, today, fully 65% of the civil servants at the Langley Research Center are eligible to retire. Yes. That is what I heard. Essentially two-thirds of the bodies and significantly more of the knowledge, experience, and skills of that workforce could sign, smile, shake hands, and say it had been fun – once. I don’t know how the other centers shape up in this regard. Langley, being I believe the original NACA facility, may be more advanced in this regard than the others; but I believe it is a generally-acknowledged truth that all of NASA has difficulties of this kind to some extent.

Now I don’t know about you, but if I were the administrator of an agency that, in some quite literal senses, lives and dies by its knowledge and skills and experience, that trend, and that statistic in particular, would turn me prematurely gray; perhaps a little pepper around the edges, but mostly salt really. For whatever credit may be assigned to him, Administrator O’Keefe, along with a number of Congressman and Senators and maybe even the President, has come to the realization that that statistic, and that trend, is indeed somewhat alarming. As we have mentioned on other occasions, the Administration has proposed interesting personnel steps toward “flexibility” that I am certain they would portray as dealing, at least in part, with that situation.

Despite those efforts toward “flexibility” though, one of the things I think the Administrator might want to do, pending the judgments on those other proposals, is to avoid severely irritating the people he has currently got, especially all those old ones who, while holding the great preponderance of knowledge and experience, can just drive out the gate with a jaunty wave for the very last time. In fact, I would think the Administrator would want to be quite smooth in his handling of those people.

Unfortunately, what has filtered down from headquarters, at least to Glenn, has not really illustrated that velvet touch. Just recently, Glenn retirees got a letter from the Security Management and Safeguards Office advising them that their retiree badges, which used to get them largely unfettered access to the Center and the offices of their old friends, are now pretty much worthless. All the retiree badges get our retirees now is “priority handling” at the Visitor Control Center to obtain a good-one-day visitor badge. And all that visitor badge gets them is access to the “public” areas of the Center: the Employee Center (with the Credit Union, the Health Insurance Office, the Health Screening Clinic, and the like) and the Fitness Center. Offices and the non-secured facilities and laboratories are now off limits to the very people who spent their lives working in them.

While one may feel that the retirees are really of no consequence since they are, after all, retired, some of them are married to retirees-to-be and the word does get around. That word sends an unfortunate message: as a person, you are nothing to the Agency – you are just here to turn your crank and make your contribution and when that is done, we’re no more interested in seeing you again than you will be interested in seeing us once you come to understand the situation. While technically this Agency, or any agency, has no soul and forms no relationships, this technically-accurate representation of the non-relationship that exists is a strange portrayal from an Administrator who speaks so eloquently of the “NASA family”.

If we scratch a little deeper into this, though, the message gets a little worse. While the letter to the retirees doesn’t really give a reason beyond “Headquarters direction”, coming from the Security Management and Safeguards Office, presumably this change in access policy has something to do with tightening our security against attack, terrorist and otherwise. I guess the supposition is that we must guard against the retiree that will one morning drive in with half a ton of C4 in his trunk and blow up his favorite set of officemates. Perhaps a retiree has converted to radical Methodism and is just waiting for the asteroid to be in the right position before he takes his heretic Baptist friends to visit it?

This proposition of retiree-as-security-threat is, from where I sit, about as ridiculous as the security screeners at the airport wanding the cute, blond-haired 7-year-old boy in the body-hugging polo shirt and sniffing the socks of the 88-year-old grandmother. Our retirees have put in 30, 40, and more (in one case right here at Glenn, something beyond 55 and still counting) years of service. Up until recently, security checks were routinely done on nearly everyone. Many have had full background investigations by the Office of Personnel Management. Has intelligence abandoned us completely? Are we so heck-bent for security that we will willingly adopt the Fascist proposition that all are suspect when it comes to the security of the State? Who are the usual suspects? Has one admittedly terrible act completely destroyed our faith in each other?

This message – that once we are separated, we are separated; that once we do not know you, we do not know you – seems to me a horrible, though possibly true, one to let loose in the employee population. It is a message that underlines the hypocrisy of the employment relationship, that gives the lie to all the “valued and treasured” messages that have been delivered, that destroys any bond of trust in anything that management says. It is just the sort of message that might leave 65% of the workforce thinking that if that’s the way they feel, they can just figure out the entry heating profile for themselves. On to sunny Florida!

Dr. Jones is available through e-mail at and also reads the newsgroup regularly; however, he reserves the right to say nothing at his convenience.

SpaceRef staff editor.