On July 21, just prior to sunrise, space shuttle Atlantis completed its final flight on the South end of the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF). The mission’s commander Chris Ferguson and crew crawled out of the orbiter and walked into the Crew Transfer Vehicle, officially ending the program that had ferried U.S. astronauts to orbit for more than 30 years. Hundreds of United Space Alliance employees swarmed around Atlantis to prepare it for the slow tow to the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF). Some of these same employees knew they would be laid off the very next day. More than two thousand dedicated space workers were required to hand in their access badges that very week. Now, over a year later, where are these people? What are they doing?
Back in 2005 then-President Bush announced that the shuttle program would end in 2010 (several scrubs caused this date to slip into 2011). His intentions were to replace the aging shuttle fleet with a safer, more flexible spacecraft – the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) since dubbed Orion. The Constellation Program was designed to keep the United States human space program in the air and thousands of KSC workers employed.
The Bush White House initiated the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program in 2006 in an effort to cede transportation of cargo to low-Earth-orbit to commercial companies while NASA focused on space exploration. In early 2010 the Obama administration cancelled the Constellation Program. This decision cost thousands of highly-skilled and dedicated space workers their jobs, their careers. Many of NASA’s astronaut corps saw the writing on the wall and have since fled the space agency.
United Space Alliance (USA), the prime shuttle processing contractor, very candidly cautioned all of its employees about their futures. Every employee was told to develop a backup plan. Meanwhile USA was in the precarious position of retaining a skilled launch team required for the safe launch and landing of the remaining shuttle missions. A plan was developed with NASA to retain skilled employees even though they knew ultimately they would be laid off after the last mission.
The required essential personnel were identified with a critical skill status and offered a minimum of 15 weeks worth of pay if they stayed through the final launch and landing. All USA employees were also guaranteed one week severance pay for every year of continuous employment up to 26 weeks. For most of the aging work force this completion bonus and severance pay was the carrot needed to keep them working until the end. The younger employees felt that they could find employment within 15 weeks and profit from the difference.
On top of these payouts employees were allowed to convert 10 weeks’ worth of their vacation time into funds. So a lot of the employees laid off at the end of the program received up to 51 weeks’ pay.
Mr. and Mrs. “D”, a married couple who both used to work for USA, were laid off the same day last July. They own a home in town and still have mortgage. Both are in their fifties with one daughter living at home studying engineering at a local college. The couple feels with the downturn in the housing market and their ties to the area that leaving the area, as so many of their colleagues have chosen to do, is simply not an option.
Their house, like many others, is now is a liability. Mrs. “D” KSC career started work right after high school. She worked her way up to a spacecraft operator. Her job had her operating the orbiter for up to 12 hours a day. This job entailed her controlling all shuttle controls during power testing in the OPF and on at the launch pad. Mrs. “D” has a master’s degree and has held a variety of other jobs during her 25-year career at KSC. Despite this impressive resume’ she has been forced to search daily for any employment.
The only offers to date were part time assembly line work, with no benefits. This would require her to drive 60 miles from her home for a paltry $10 an hour. The current cost of gas alone made this offer counter-productive at best.
Mr. “D” has also been looking for work for some time. He has yet to receive a job offer. To survive he has decided to lower his expectations and applied for a position as heavy equipment operator for the county that pays $15 an hour. The county had the Mr. “D” and another candidate face off for the position. Unfortunately he finished in second place.
Yes when Mr. and Mrs. “D” left USA they did receive a generous compensation package, but after a year of paying their own benefits and daily household expenses the nest egg has evaporated. Their funds dwindle day-by-day replaced by panic and tension. They meet weekly with the local unemployment office to sharpen their resumes and strategize employment searches.
Prior to the extensive layoffs there were bountiful jobs in the local area. Many paying as much as the county position that Mr. “D” applies for. Those same jobs have seen the hourly wage offered lowered by a third.
Free enterprise is alive and well, an example of supply and demand. The Brevard Work Force sponsors a Launch Pad Job club every Thursday at the local Moose Club. A group of 75 – 100 laid off space workers meet to network and train to enhance their job seeking skills. Most of the former employees are in their mid-fifties. One phrase that is heard time and again at these meetings is age discrimination.
The new privatized launch company SpaceX employees approximately 2,000. Of those 2,000 less than 100 are employed within Florida (most of SpaceX’s employees work in California). The average Space X employee age, corporate wide, is 30 years old.
The “D’s” are by no means destitute, but like many laid off workers, jobs for those who choose to stay in the area are few and far between. Family anxiety is high with no end in sight.
It is unlikely that Kennedy Space Center will return to strength it had during the shuttle era any time soon. The SLF, the place that saw the last shuttle mission end, is now planned for space tourists to take flights with Zero Gravity Corporation to briefly experience microgravity. NASCAR will also use the 15,000 foot (4,572 m) runway to test vehicles. Both the Vehicle Assembly Building and Launch Control Center have been opened for guided tours.
KSC does appear to be slowly getting back on its feet but it won’t likely be a benefit to Mr. and Mrs. “D” who eat into their retirement daily as they go through their daily ritual of looking for jobs. NASA has been told to cede the delivery of crew and cargo to low-Earth-orbit to private firms and focus on deep space exploration. It has been given less defined objectives (under President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration the directive was Moon, Mars and Beyond). NASA has been directed toward an asteroid by 2025 and to send astronauts to Mars sometime in the 2030s.
The “D’s” eventually found employment. Mr. “D” works as grader for the county where he earns $15 an hour. Mrs. “D” applied for and was accepted to do soldering work for a company based out of Orlando that produces GPS antennas. Her new employers found her work to be of such high caliber that her new employers upped her hourly salary from $9 to $11. The combined hourly wage that Mr. and Mrs. “D” now earn ($26) is less than one of them earned during their time as space workers at KSC.
So while Mr. and Mrs. “D” are thrilled to be working again, their lives in the “new” Brevard foreshadow the trickle-down effect that is currently happening and will continue. With less disposable income the “Ds” and those like them will be drastically cutting back on how much they spend. Gone are the days when they would go out to see a movie, go out to eat and do other things that benefit the local economy. The “new” Brevard has seen numerous businesses close due to this reality and it remains to be seen how long this period will last.