Last shuttle’s retirement move pains workers
November 1, 2012
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Space shuttle Atlantis isn’t going far to its retirement home at Kennedy Space Center’s main tourist stop. But it might as well be a world away for the workers who spent decades doting on Atlantis and NASA’s other shuttles.
Those who agreed to stay until the end – and help with the shuttles’ transition from round-the-world flying marvels to museum showpieces – now face unemployment just like so many of their colleagues over the last few years.
NASA’s 30-year shuttle program ended more than a year ago with Atlantis the last shuttle to orbit the Earth. Now, it’s the last of three shuttles to leave the coop. Friday’s one-way road trip over a mere 10 miles represents the closing chapter of what once was a passionate endeavor for so many.
The latest wave of layoff notices struck the same day last month that a small group of journalists toured Atlantis’ stripped-down crew compartment. The hangar was hushed, compared with decades past. Despite pleas from management to put on smiles, many of the technicians and engineers were in no mood for happy talk as reporters bustled about.
The way many of these workers see it, they’re being put out to pasture, too.
Joe Walsh’s walking papers are effective Dec. 7, “Pearl Harbor Day,” the 29-year shuttle program veteran pointed out as he showed a reporter around the crew compartment.
Three-hundred jobs are set to vanish by January, with more layoffs coming in the spring.
Shuttle contractor United Space Alliance already has let go about 4,100 from Kennedy and its Florida environs since 2009. Just over 1,000 of its employees remain at the space center; at the height of the program there were 6,500.
President George W. Bush, in 2004, ordered the end of the shuttle program, to be followed by a new moon exploration program named Constellation. But President Barack Obama axed Constellation and set NASA’s long-term sights on asteroids and Mars, with private U.S. companies providing service to the International Space Station.
“People know that they could have flown this (shuttles) longer until they had something else, and then they canceled the other stuff,” said Walsh, a shuttle technician.
The 65-year-old doubts he’ll find new work because of his age.
“I’m not blaming anybody,” Walsh said. “It’s politics. It’s all about money.”
Technician David Bakehorn, 55, is also counting down his final work days after 27 years on the job. His layoff is effective Jan. 4.
Bakehorn was there when a brand new Atlantis arrived at Kennedy Space Center in 1985, the fourth operational ship in the fleet.
“It’s a big divorce that nobody wants – because we’re a family,” Bakehorn said. “We’ve watched each other get old and gray and bald. We’ve watched each other have kids, watched them grow up and watched them have kids … I’d do anything for most of these people here. I’ve spent more time around a lot of them than I have my own family, my own kids and my own wife. So it’s very difficult.”
As bad as it is, the pall hanging over the space center is nothing like it was after Challenger erupted during liftoff in 1986 and Columbia shattered during descent in 2003, at least from Bakehorn’s perspective.
“These orbiters are personal. It’s like a living, breathing thing to us,” Bakehorn said. So he cried not just for the loss of the 14 astronauts who died, “but for the loss of my friends Challenger and Columbia.”
NASA’s Stephanie Stilson, who has been overseeing the shuttle transition, considers Atlantis “the saving grace for us” since it is staying put.
Shuttle Discovery went to the Smithsonian in Virginia in April. Endeavour moved into the California Science Center in Los Angeles in October.
Those two shuttles flew to their new homes atop a jumbo jet with postcard-perfect backdrops. Atlantis will be ferried on a 76-wheeled platform today from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the main base of operations at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Its $100 million exhibit for Atlantis – still under construction and financed by tour operator Delaware North Cos. – is due to open next summer. The shuttle will appear as though it is orbiting the planet, with its payload bay doors open.
“We’ve all known it’s coming, but still until you actually get there, you really don’t understand how you’re going to feel,” said Stilson, who will be moving on to a job at NASA headquarters in Washington.
For her, the tears didn’t flow until the last leg of Endeavour’s cross-country flight to Los Angeles in September. Then, “I was bawling like a baby.”
Bakehorn, in fact, is skipping Friday’s big Atlantis event, which is drawing NASA brass as well as members of the public paying up to $90 apiece.
“I’ve said my goodbyes. You can only do it only so many times,” he said Thursday.
Earlier this week, the two NASA astronauts aboard the space station, Sunita Williams and Kevin Ford, thanked the remaining shuttle workers for their contribution. They also offered reassurance.
“We wouldn’t be here on the International Space Station if it wasn’t for the successful work of the space shuttles bringing all these modules up here,” Williams told The Associated Press. “I’m sure there are many places that their talents would be wanted and desired.”
To make it clear that Kennedy isn’t shutting down, NASA held a pair of news conferences on the eve of Atlantis’ move to talk up the growing commercial side of the space program and the future of human exploration.
Just this past Sunday, an unmanned SpaceX Dragon capsule returned science samples and equipment from the space station after dropping off cargo. The Dragon rocketed into orbit Oct. 7 from the adjoining Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The California-based company hopes to provide ferry rides for astronauts in a few years and create more SpaceX jobs at Cape Canaveral.
But that’s in the future. Those about to lose their jobs are more focused on the here and now. They realize that they likely will have to settle for less satisfying work and lower pay.
Walsh doesn’t hold out much hope.
“I’m old. Too old. I’m 65,” he said with a sigh. “I’m not ready to retire, but it looks like I’ll have to.”