Space workers struggle a year after last shuttle

July 15, 2012 by MIKE SCHNEIDER
In this Wednesday, July 11, 2012 photo, former space shuttle worker Terry White poses in front of a mock space shuttle at the Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville, Fla. White was a project manager who worked 33 years for the shuttle program until he was laid off after Atlantis landed last July 21. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

(AP) — A year after NASA ended the three-decade-long U.S. space shuttle program, thousands of formerly well-paid engineers and other workers around the Kennedy Space Center are still struggling to find jobs to replace the careers that flourished when shuttles blasted off from the Florida "Space Coast."

Some have headed to South Carolina to build airplanes in that state's growing industry, and others have moved as far as Afghanistan to work as government contractors. Some found lower-paying jobs beneath their technical skills that allowed them to stay. Many are still looking for work and cutting back on things like driving and utilities to save money.

"Nobody wants to hire the old guy," said Terry White, a 62-year-old former project manager who worked 33 years for the shuttle program until he was laid off after Atlantis landed last July 21. "There just isn't a lot of work around here. Or if so, the wages are really small."

White earned more than $100,000 a year at the end of his career at the . The prospects of finding a job that pays anywhere near that along the Space Coast are slim.

"I could take an $11-an-hour job that is 40 miles away," he said "But with gas prices and all that, it's not really worthwhile."

More than 7,400 people, who once had labored on one of history's most complicated engineering achievements, lost their jobs when the shuttle program ended last July. While other shuttle workers in Houston, New Orleans and Huntsville, Alabama, lost jobs, those areas had bigger economies to absorb the workers. In less economically diverse Brevard County, the mainly contractor positions cut by NASA accounted for just under 5 percent of the county's private sector jobs.

The Kennedy Space Center's current workforce of 8,500 workers is the smallest in more in than 35 years. In the middle of the last decade, the space center employed around 15,000 workers.

James Peek, a 48-year-old quality inspector for the shuttles, has applied for 50 positions with no success since he was laid off in October 2010. He has taken odd jobs glazing windows for a luxury hotel in Orlando and working as a security guard. He has no health insurance and incurred a $13,000 bill when he was hospitalized for three days last May.

"With most companies, it's like your application goes into a black hole," Peek said. "We're struggling to stay afloat."

In this Wednesday, July 11, 2012 photo, Terry White, far right, leads a discussion during a business development meeting of former space workers, clockwise from center, John Hoog, Raymond Steele, Kenneth Mark Higginson Jr., Kay Sunderland and Kevin Harrington, in Titusville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Jobless space workers have signed up for Brevard Workforce's job placement and training services. Slightly more than half of the 5,700 workers the agency has been able to track have found jobs, but more than a quarter of those positions were outside Florida. Those jobs have been in the fields of engineering, mechanics and security, according to the agency.

Brevard County's unemployment rate spiked in the months that the shuttle program wound down, going from 10.6 percent in April 2011 to 11.7 percent in August 2011. It has since declined to 9 percent, a result of a smaller workforce as many former shuttle workers either moved away or retired earlier than planned. Brevard County has added 2,700 jobs since the beginning of the year, but many are in the southern part of the 72-mile (116-kilometer)-long county where information technology giant Harris Corp. and airplane-maker Embraer are located. Jobless space workers in the northern part of the county jokingly refer to those high-tech workers as "their rich cousins."

Some local employers are finding that the former space workers' salary demands are sometimes too high.

"STOP sending former Space Center employees," one employer wrote to Brevard Workforce, the local job agency, in a comment included in its monthly committee report. "They have an unrealistic salary expectation."

Taxpayer money allocated for job training programs for displaced space shuttle workers also is dwindling a year after the program ended.

Adding to the difficulties of finding a new job is the age of many of the former shuttle workers. Many spent their entire careers working on the space shuttles and are now in their 50s and 60s.

In between sending out resumes and meeting at networking events, many of the space workers are volunteering at Kennedy Space Center, giving tours to dignitaries and providing oral histories to tourists who stop by the Vehicle Assembly Building.

Even though many of the older space workers like White had years to plan for the end of the shuttle program, they stuck around, hoping to prepare the orbiters for displays in museums in Florida, Los Angeles and Washington after the program ended. They expected younger shuttle workers to move over to the successor Constellation program whose goal was to send astronauts to the moon and then Mars. But the cancellation of the Constellation program in 2010 increased the competition for those few jobs left prepping the shuttles.

In this Wednesday, July 11, 2012 photo, former space shuttle worker Kevin Harrington attends a business development meeting, in Titusville, Fla. Harrington previously worked on the shuttles' thermal protection system before he was laid off. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Some shuttle workers, such as Kevin Harrington, had been holding out hope that the program announced after Constellation's demise — a heavy-lift rocket system that would launch astronauts in an Orion space capsule — would offer immediate widespread job opportunities. But the plans announced last year won't have unmanned test launches of the Space Launch System for another five years, and the first manned mission won't be for about another decade.

Private-sector companies, such as Paypal founder Elon Musk's Space X, are starting unmanned launches from Kennedy Space Center, but their need for workers doesn't come close to what was required for the shuttle program.

"We expected a little more action from our government, at least in figuring out what direction we're going to go in," said Harrington, 55, who worked on the shuttles' thermal protection system earning about $80,000 a year. "Ultimately, that would inform which direction we would go in. A lot of us thought, since we have such deep roots in the community, we could wait it out. It was hopeful at first. Now it isn't so hopeful. Things aren't moving fast."

Many of the former space workers find camaraderie and job tips each Friday at the weekly breakfast of the Spacecoast Technical Network, a group created by former Kennedy Space Center workers. Just hours before 70 members dined on eggs, biscuits and coffee at a recent meeting, three Chinese astronauts parachuted back to Earth in a capsule halfway around the world. For the space workers, it was yet another sign of the growing competition facing the United States as a leader of space exploration. At the moment, the United States has no way of sending astronauts to space in its own vehicles, and NASA is relying on the Soviet-made Soyuz capsules to send U.S. astronauts to the international space station.

One of the network's founders, Bill Bender, recently joined more than two dozen other colleagues working on a reconnaissance project for a contractor in Afghanistan where they are earning six-figure annual incomes.

Bender had been out of work for about a year from his job on the cancelled Constellation program when he took the one-year contract to work halfway around the world.

"As the months passed, I began to realize the hard reality that things I had known and taken for granted no longer existed. Stable work, good pay, benefits, etc. were no longer a reasonable expectation," Bender wrote in a recent email from Afghanistan. "As time went by and it was getting closer to a year without a job ... the (Afghan) opportunity looked better and better. The money was very good due to compensation for hardship and danger."

Those who have remained on the Space Coast without jobs are cutting back on small luxuries. Harrington has trimmed back on eating out and vacations.

Al Schmidt, who worked 27 years at the space center, has cut back on using his car and utilities at home to save money. The 60-year-old's unemployment benefits are running out soon, and without a new U.S. program offering ready-to-go jobs, he is contemplating retirement, something he doesn't want to do.

"I live day to day. I can't afford new cars or lots of groceries," Schmidt said. "From where I sit, there is nothing coming online soon enough to resolve my problem."

Explore further: Fla.'s Space Coast feels pain of shuttle's end


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Jul 15, 2012
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4.4 / 5 (7) Jul 15, 2012
He has no health insurance and incurred a $13,000 bill when he was hospitalized for three days last May.

That's just insane.
2.8 / 5 (9) Jul 15, 2012
thousands of formerly well-paid engineers and other workers around the Kennedy Space Center

Hmm, apparently they were too well-paid. Otherwise the shuttles would be productive enough to stay around. On the other hand, the engineers at Space X are being legitimately well-paid based on their market value to the company. You can always count on the STATE Associated Press to pull out the sob stories for unproductive government workers.
2.1 / 5 (7) Jul 15, 2012
A-ha. The real reason, the only reason for Shuttle, was to continue employment for 20,000 scientists and engineers. Damn Nixon, his worse mistake was Shuttle, an over weight slug with no where to go.
5 / 5 (1) Jul 15, 2012
The Space Scuttle was a technology demonstrator able only to go to ISS-Blackhole 1; for which the SCSC was traded away.

KSC isn't the first facility to be closed. BRAC-03 retired tens of thousands, and, 47 y.o. GS-12 nuclear test engineer technician, me.
3.5 / 5 (2) Jul 15, 2012
The end of the shuttle program was well announced and the date was made known far in advance. Need I say more?
Good engineers are hard to find, particularly in the electronics industry. Re-training from one discipline to another is doable, particularly if one plans with the future in mind.
5 / 5 (3) Jul 15, 2012
My med bill after pneumonia late last year came to $168,000 with 2 week ER stay and no med insurance after being laid off most of the year. That's even more insane.
not rated yet Jul 16, 2012
There sure are A LOT of d-bags commenting on this article.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 16, 2012
USA needs a National Health Service. Your rates are not afordable for ordinary people.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 16, 2012
Make 100,000 a year, have no safety net...

I'm sorry if I don't feel all that bad.
2 / 5 (4) Jul 16, 2012
USA needs a National Health Service. Your rates are not afordable for ordinary people.

No, that is NOT the answer... the answer is to promote private sector competition and address the problems that drive the prices up so high such as frivolous lawsuits (and ridiculously high rewards for non-frivolous ones) that force hospitals and doctors to carry multi-million dollar malpractice insurance policies.
3 / 5 (2) Jul 16, 2012
USA needs a National Health Service. Your rates are not afordable for ordinary people.

If that's the case then why is the Massachusetts healthcare system bankrupt? Because their citizens used and abused healthcare benefits payed by funds/labor which wasn't their own to begin with. Therefor, they had less appreciation for the benefits and less incentive to be more self sufficient which lead to the bankruptcy.

Why are corporations filing for waivers on the new Unaffordable Healthcare Act? Because they can't afford it.

Why are businesses being timid about hiring new employees? Because there are punitive hiring measures(AKA Unaffordable Heatlthcare Act) which are making hirees more expensive for employers.

There's a reason why the U.S. subsidizes the world in terms of medical innovation. Because we have a much more private oriented healthcare system which rewards innovation with profits. If you take away the profits, you take away the drive for innovation.

1 / 5 (1) Jul 16, 2012
That's just insane.

Yes, and the main problem with healthcare in this country is that people don't treat it as a service they treat it as an entitlement. No one shops around to get the best deal, no one gets a quote for the cost of services rendered beforehand... if you even so much as ASK a doctor or nurse how much a procedure is going to cost they look at you like you're a monster who puts money above your health and well being... ask me how I know.

Most people go to the doctors, get whatever tests or treatments the doctor recommends, and spend literally zero seconds considering the costs associated with those services, then they are surprised when they get a bill for 10k...

Somehow the people of this country have been raised to believe that going to the doctors is different than going to the mechanic... it's not. Get quotes, shop around, know how much the service is going to cost BEFORE consenting to it, especially without insurance.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 16, 2012
Comments have drifted off topic from shuttle layoffs to the bashing of laid off workers and medical politics. Seems a lot of the comment writers suffer from attention deficit disorder.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 16, 2012
Seems like someone doesn't understand that conversations evolve naturally over time. If you want to talk about the shuttle layoffs (I don't see much to talk about there personally) no one is stopping you.

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