“It was like driving 100 miles per hour through an intersection and getting blindsided by a truck.”
This is how one of the 88 former Bigelow Aerospace employees describes being laid off in March. “I got so wrapped up into what we were doing, that I wasn’t really paying attention to what was happening in the outside world. It just hit me all at once.”
This is the constant thread that runs through several LinkedIn conversations with satellite and aerospace industry employees who were let go at the onset of the global COVID-19 economic shutdown. The “mission” you undertake as an employee envelops you. It’s more than personal. It becomes all you can think about, or talk about. When the mission is suddenly yanked away from you, for reasons beyond your control, you find yourself dealing with both a tremendous feeling of loss and bewilderment.
How does one let go of what could be years of work to take up another mission – sometime in the distant future when things return to a “normal” that nobody knows how to define? The most common question that private industry leaders ask throughout this crisis is “What is the new normal?” For the workforce, what permanent changes will happen as a result of COVID-19? What scars will the pandemic leave on the industry?
While the commercial space sector spent February 2020 bracing for COVID-19, the pandemic swarmed the industry in what felt like a week’s time. The long-term economic shutdowns created three possible scenarios for businesses. The first was creating a crippling long-term gap in demand for services. If a company was already dealing with financial stress, COVID-19 eliminated most or all hope of relief. This is what happened to OneWeb, the satellite constellation company founded by Greg Wyler in 2012. Once considered one of the leading potential satellite companies in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), OneWeb filed for bankruptcy and laid off 85% of its 531-employee workforce.
The second scenario was that your state government refused to recognize your company as an essential business and forced you to shut down. This was the fate of Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace, which had been manufacturing and developing expandable space station modules since 1998. In late March, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak ordered all “non-essential” businesses in the state to close, which led to the elimination of 88 jobs at Bigelow.
The third scenario, though arguably the best possible outcome, isn’t exactly optimal. If your company was declared essential, or your business could be handled remotely, and you had enough of that business (or investment capital) to sustain operations through a potential long-term shutdown, you could avoid layoffs. You may even be seeing an increase in demand for services. However, your workforce is now largely working from home – isolated, not traveling, not taking vacation, and wondering how long the company can sustain in this environment. This doesn’t even take into account the danger of the actual virus, or the toll of the stress it takes.
In a response to questions about the impact of pandemic on its workforce, Earth Observation (EO) company Planet’s HR department tells Via Satellite, “Staff members are working from home in full force, including the operational teams needed to maintain stable satellite operations. All spacecraft management systems are designed to be operated remotely, so our ability to provide imagery products and services to our customers will continue without interruption.”
Planet operates in California, which has experienced numerous spikes and valleys of new confirmed COVID cases. “We are implementing mitigation plans for any challenges that may arise in manufacturing or from delays in satellite launches, and are fully prepared to continue business despite economic impacts that may occur as a result of COVID-19. We will keep our customers and partners notified of any changes as the situation evolves,” the company says.
The vast majority of European satellite operator Eutelsat’s workforce are now telecommuters. “This has been very effective for us,” Eutelsat says in a company statement. “We have been able to serve our customers very well, even with a lot of employees working from home. We have been able to develop the relationships with our customers and deal with their concerns. We have even been able to sign new contracts during this period.”
Lockheed Martin CEO Marilyn Hewson says the company has been addressing many of the risks that have arisen for both customers and its own workforce due to the pandemic. “Our manufacturing facilities are open and our workforce is engaged. The situation will evolve and we will continue to monitor our business environment for areas of concern. The corporation remains committed to delivering the products and services needed for our customers and to maintaining a safe and healthy workplace for our employees,” says Hewson.
The Satellite Industry Association (SIA) has been working hard to assess the damage on the industry’s workforce and providing guidance to member organizations as they slowly walk the path back to some sense of normalcy.
The organization has compiled information about different ways that companies are taking steps to ensure workplace safety throughout the COVID-19 outbreak and made it available on the organization’s website. “Based on the information we have been provided, I think the industry has been very proactive in protecting its workforce,” says SIA President Tom Stroup.
COVID-19 presents a unique challenge for the commercial satellite industry’s recovery efforts specifically because of its wide range of impact. Stroup says he expects the industry to rebound and replenish the workforce quickly. He reminds us that some satellite industry sectors have even benefitted from COVID-19. For example, Stroup cites the increase in demand for overall broadband services and how the direct-to-consumer satellite industry has responded to the call.
“However, all of these providers have also had to deal with access issues to ensure that their service technicians could get access to sites, which required access to [Personal Protective Equipment] PPE, to install equipment,” says Stroup. “Mobile companies have seen a change in usage patterns, but it appears the biggest impact for them has been a decline in equipment sales due to the closure of their retail operations. There has been an impact on manufacturing as companies adjust to safety guidelines, but I don’t think our industry has been impacted differently than others in that respect. Finally, there have been some launch delays, but that is unique to the satellite industry.”
Women in Aerospace (WIA), which provides programs, professional development, conferences, and networking opportunities for the aerospace community, has ramped up efforts to help support its members who have lost jobs due to COVID-19. Like most organizations that depend on the value of face-to-face interaction, WIA’s efforts are now entirely virtual.
“We are offering quite a few webinars now that are focused on this challenging time,” says WIA Executive Director Annette Summers. “We had a webinar in April on managing the stress of COVID-19 that had over 400 attendees, and a successful follow-up to that webinar in June.”
Summers says that resilience is the most valuable skill that employees can have at this critical moment. “Resiliency will help us cope, adapt, and thrive in both our personal and professional domains. This is particularly critical for people in leadership roles given the essential role they play in sustaining optimism and engaging their staff during this crisis.”
What industry associations like SIA and WIA lack, unfortunately, is an accurate damage control assessment. Up-to-date stats on job loss and economic impact related to the satellite industry aren’t available and probably won’t be for some time.
For those that survived the first wave of layoffs, several are finding themselves taking on a new mission – contributing directly to the fight against COVID. Blue Origin, the launch company founded and financed by the wealthiest person in the world, Jeff Bezos, enjoys the unique position of not having to lay off any of its employees. During a conference call, its communications team told us that the company is leveraging the technical skills of its employees to create PPE gear for healthcare workers on the front lines.
“We’ve dedicated 25 of our additive manufacturing machines to 3D print visors used for face shields. We are producing daily shipments of the visors to our supply partner, Stratasys, who is distributing them to hospitals in need around the country,” Blue Origin officials say. “This initiative started organically within Blue as our engineers and machinists were looking for ways to help. The Blue Origin team members currently supporting this effort work on our BE-4 engine development and are volunteering their time for this endeavor.”
Several satellite and space companies are taking this approach to keep employees engaged and invested in the mission. Boeing, which has been hampered by declines in its aviation business long before COVID, has dedicated resources to create 3D-printed face shields for healthcare professionals working to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Satellite operator Viasat doesn’t have pockets quite as deep as Blue Origin and hasn’t escaped the initial COVID outbreak unscathed. The company said that long-term projections forced the company to shed 6% of its workforce – totaling approximately 300 jobs. However, Viasat remains dedicated to providing its services for the greater good.
“We remain committed to the FCC’s ‘Keep Americans Connected’ pledge to keep residential and small business customers connected, lessening potential health and economic impacts associated with the coronavirus,” Viasat officials say in a statement. “In addition, Viasat is working hard to optimize its network for maximum uptime and speed, as well as prioritized critical business and education applications to keep customers connected.”
The industry-wide altruism has been a morale boost for the workforce, as one can clearly see by browsing employee pages on LinkedIn and company profiles on Glassdoor. People want to work for companies that have a sense of community – but also for those who will, in the end, protect their own. “This is a great place to establish your career…” reads a comment posted on a satellite data service company’s Glassdoor profile. “…if it’s still around in 2021.” VS