Opinion: One Year Later Finds Shuttle Workers Still Struggling

Many highly-skilled aerospace workers still are unemployed and are struggling to survive in the current tepid economic climate. Photo Credit: Matt Gaetjens

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.

The one business that has grown in the past year – the sale of going out of business signs. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

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 orbiters have been powered down for the final time, those that worked on them have been forced into other jobs to survive. The pay they now receive is, in most cases, far less than what they once did. Photo Credit: Julian Leek / Blue Sawtooth Studios

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.

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  2. Poor planning! Poor planning on the part of NASA. Poor planning on the part of the current Administration. The real question is why it is taking so long to get the next vehicle flying?

  3. You can thank the current administration for cancelling the constellation program and instead of restructuring so affordability could happen, they went a different route. The Augustine commission was a sham and a play by the administration to put NASA in a bad light. Was Ares behind? Yes… Only because our government failed to fund the program adequately. Behind schedule for the same reason. It is quite possible that funded properly, the program would have been up and running in 2 years. No matter what the Augustine commission states.

  4. The article states that launch scrubs caused the shuttle program to end in 2011 instead of 2010. President Obama added two Shuttle flights that extended the program’s manifest into 2011.

    ghharris blamed “poor planning on the part of the current Administration”. President Bush ended the Shuttle program with full knowledge that there would be at least a 4-year gap. Better planning on his part would have included a functioning replacement capability before Shuttle retired.

    JohnF thinks the current administration should have restructured Constellation instead of canceling it. I believe Constellation could have survived if Ares-1 was never part of it. Ares-1 was duplicative, and President Bush’s no-growth “pay-as-you-go” budget for NASA forced the program into major delays and cost overruns, breaking the bank for Ares-5 and other NASA priorities. Bad planning by President Bush.

  5. All of the above facts have all been well discussed for over a year, the Bush moon plans, the failed congressional funding, the final end of the program, the Augustine report, The “perceived” promise of support by Mr. Obama on the Campaign stop in Brevard in 2008 etc.. The facts are all undisputed; of course the political interpretations of the facts are what fuels more debate… That will never change and we should all bury that effort as there will be no changing ideals, the damage is already done, However..
    One major factor that I feel has been intentionally avoided, missed or just not talked about throughout all these articles and countless media productions of personal tragedies of ruined retirements, split up families and the lost generation of dedicated “hands on” space program Americans, has been the Hugh, incalculable loss to the American tax payer… The hundreds of millions of tax payer dollars that were invested over 30 years in special training and the hands on knowhow only learned by doing the work by this lost and now discarded people.
    This is a National disgrace, pure and simple. Where was the congressional committee or the CBO estimates on this loss and total disregard for this investment? The number was too large to even contemplate for fear of the national backlash that could jeopardize political careers if truly considered and published.
    The Nation knows little and cares less of the personal devastation these politicians in Washington and NASA caused by their total disregard for the future of space flight.
    They cared not of the loss of knowledge and training transferred to the next young generation of space workers.
    This will be a very big loss to them in knowledge and heritage, the very foundation and respect for what they are working on, as well as a big cost to the American tax payer in retraining them in what would have been naturally handed down to them had we been around to transfer it. It’s like a family losing their Father and mother at a very early age; life is just not the same as having them there.

    There has been all this talk for years on how to inspire the next generation of Kids to get into the sciences, drive renewed excitement in space exploration.
    I find it exceedingly ironic that the only thing this administration left the new generation of kids, is the sad stories of how their parents could not afford to send them to college as they were abandoned at a very fragile time of their lives after devoting their careers to the very people (NASA) that depended on them to take the concepts from paper drawings to a vehicle we could touch and would make America the world leader in manned space.

    Now that’s how you inspire them to devote their lives and encourage then to make the same assumptions we made and trust that our country wanted to be a leader in something as extraordinary as space travel. Inspiring!

  6. You would have to be a complete and utter moron to try and blame this on the GOP! This crisis was owned and managed by Barack Obama and any of you dimwits hurt by this that vote for that loser get exactly what you have coming to you.

  7. BAD PLANNING BY BUSH!?! Are you out of your mind???? Seriously, what kind of dope are you guys smoking. All the people that were at KSC were going to be transferred over to Constellation but the current President utterly destroyed that. At least get your facts straight you stinking leftist liars.

  8. Iron Bob and others..
    I too was a former shuttle worker with USA… many in my family were as well, we feel your pain and understand the venom you try to express with your words.. We all now understand that We live in a “left” leading country now. What was once thought sacred, the manned space program, it turns out was on the font burner of that government cuts list…
    There is little we can do about the turn of events now, really no more than we tried to do when we saw the Tsunami coming on the horizon 4 years ago.

    One of the very big problems we have in this country now is the totally skewed view feed to the American Public from the media and written press… they have a wonderful way of restating the facts in a light that follows their political interests, I don’t know what happened to the unbiased reporters, the editors that would not stand for such manipulations of the truth..

    Had the media been neutral in their facts reporting, the the politics of either side would be very apparent to the public and all this possibly would have never happened.
    Unfortunately the public has transformed and given away their own judgment in the electronic age and believes whatever they see on their favorite network or printed rag or worse, FaceBook and such.
    As a whole people have stopped challenging the facts around them and leave the country’s fate to the those few to run it or ruin it.. If there is any blame, it’s on all of us Americans for not demanding better from our media.
    We can only hope to change this by our vote and by voicing our displeasure to the media and their coverage of stories. We have to get back to using our own God given common sense on matters and hope we can collectively make a change over time.. Maybe for our children, we need to teach them to use their heads and question with respect the authority’s that seek to make us slaves to their interests instead of that of a great nation.
    In closing, my wife were forced into making the total life change to seek work in other parts of the country, it has been dreadful leaving our friends and family and 40 years or our life in Brevard county behind.. Yes we are thankful to have found work with benefits, but it has come at a Hugh price… Classic case of living to work, not working to live.. and I hate that we are in the position in life.
    Another thing the press missed as well.. People like us that we lucky enough to have found work with one of USA’s parent companies, (i.e. Boeing and Lockheed)None of us got paid a single dime when we left USA, no severance pay, nothing..
    It was on us to pay our own way to a new start.. In the end everyone is suffering in one way or another, the questions is how we can keep this from happening again In the future. I truely wish all my fellow Space Shuttle Contractor employees the very best and wishes for recovery very soon..

  9. IronBob: There’s plenty of blame to go around, but my comments about Bush’s failures and about Constellation’s faults are true. Constellation destroyed itself.

    Actually, amid national screams for across-the-board spending cuts, Constellation could have been easily funded by transferring a few billion from the DOD budget, but what Republican would have voted for that??

    And harping about lost jobs at KSC is a hollow argument. NASA is not a jobs program for the Space Coast. Despite much near-term pain, I think we’re on the right long-term path.

  10. Ellegood, spoken as a true California transplant… I find it ironic that I had to leave my beloved Florida for the state you left.. A state that surely knows how to spend money and tax you for breathing the polluted air… You Opinion of the facts are like …. everyone has one… please go back to your web site editorials we all have learned to love..

  11. Craig: I’m a Florida native and have never lived in California.

    And I don’t believe human space exploration was on the “front burner” of any government budget cuts list. NASA’s overall budget has been somewhat protected when compared to other non-defense budgets.

  12. Hmm,you sure write with a bias, looking at your web site and Bio.. I see your associated with commercial Space efforts and Embry Riddle.. My bad, know I understand why you like what has happened on the NASA budge.. I see the motivation, it is very similar to the indifference seen here in California..But where are the jobs for these people by all htese new companies?

    Living here in the LA area, I see the news bragging about how Space X has done this and done that.. while all the employment grows here for Space X, the folks in Florida are left out in the cold. How does that help my friends get back to work? It only helped out here in Calfornia..A thankless state..

    Further I don’t believe the NASA budget was protected at all, in fact there were cuts or level budgets when there should have been increases to start ramping up for Constellation program, Congress never would approve the bills to go along with the Bush plans to end Shuttle.. Completing the ISS was the main plan for the last 4 years and the NASA was in on the plan from the beginning with no real intention of flying Constellation.

    There is a saying in politics, never commission a commitee of experts to examine one of your programs unless you know what the outcome will be..

    The Augustime Commision was just the plan needed to justify Mr. Obama’s reversal of his support for the space shuttle workers, made famious in his Brevard stump speech in 2008.. this way he had a scape goat to kill the program he hated all alone..

    Congrats on your successful support of commercial space, it a shame that both programs could not have moved forward at the same time.. 1/10th of 1% of the national budget was NASA… The GOV wastes more than that every day!

  13. Craig: I like to think my bias is toward reality, but concede that there’s room for differences of opinion on a lot of these issues. It would have been interesting to see what a McCain/Palin administration would have done with Constellation.

    Could they have increased NASA’s budget by several billion to finish Ares-1 before they retired the ISS? Given the fiscal crisis they would have faced in 2009, I doubt it. If it had survived, we would still be watching the sole-source Ares-1’s budget spiraling upward while its IOC slid to the right. And no money left for Ares-5 or any serious lunar mission planning.

  14. I agree, I would have liked to have seen that as well, I doubt however that our manned space program would have been left in this status it now finds itself today.

    But let’s not discount the 2 major bailout expenditures like TARP this administration did spend that has now proven to have been of little help to this economy, and let’s not forget that the entire NASA budget was less than 1/10 of 1 percent of the budget..a few billion dollars along the way would have made ALL the difference..

    I’m not putting full blame on this administration, the Bush years had a mission to replace Shuttle and the congress(s) failed to provide the proper funding to ramp up for Constellation/Orion..

    However, President Obama had it in his power to save this program as well as the Hugh tax payer investment made through the contractors in the people that developed, maintained and flew this vehicles..
    He implied that this was his goal to all of us, but now we know he was talking about NASA (government) people only..
    I don’t think a single NASA employee has lost their job.. Not one.. And for the life of me, I don’t remember seeing a single one of those people out in the High Bays actually working on the hardware, more like standing around in a quality oversight role..
    So what are all these thousands of NASA employees doing now?
    As for the commercial companies hiring local Florida space workers? as we can see it’s not happening except for 3 here 5 there it’s a much different storyout here in California at Space X… in Hawthorn.. 4 pages of hiring going on here.. Xcor, Scaled Composites here at Mohave, Bigalow, Serria Nevada corp, all hiring on the NASA nut..

    Sure we see them starting to moving some work plans to KSC..but in very small numbers.

    I resent the facts as they are playing out, seeing all the major hiring going on here in California for commercial space and seeing all my fellow workers suffering in Florida out of work, especially when all these people out here could do was bad mouth these programs in years past..

    I say if NASA tax payer money is being used on these programs, then these companies should be required to give preferential hiring to former workers over new hires.
    Yea they might get an offer to work out here in California but it beats worrying how you’re going to pay for your next health prescription sitting in Florida.
    The people that devoted their lives to and due to age, became dependant on the future space programs are national assets that should be cared for and valued for their abilities on space programs not discarded like an old IBM typewriter that is perfectly functional.

    My Rant is over on this matter.. it’s all been said, we can only hope a new adminstration will change the wrongs, but I have my doubts that is even possible now.

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