Throttle Down

How Florida’s Space Coast is bracing for the end of the space shuttle program.

Space shuttle Atlantis was poised for its final mission in May as photographers jostled for position.
Space shuttle Atlantis was poised for its final mission in May as photographers jostled for position.

Florida residents live with uncertainty and vulnerability. Chances are good that any family living today on the state’s coast has witnessed the damage caused by a hurricane. Those living along the Space Coast—primarily in Brevard County—have a new storm to weather, though like Florida’s hurricanes, it’s nothing they haven’t seen before. When President Richard Nixon announced the end of the Apollo program in 1972, “people just left the key in the front door and headed to Seattle or Denver to try to get on somewhere else where their skills transferred,” recalls Leroy Solid, then a NASA project manager. Now with the space shuttle program ending, many of the more than 13,000 employees and contractors at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center stand to lose their jobs. (This month, prime contractor United Space Alliance cut its 8,100-person workforce by 15 percent, with 902 jobs lost at KSC.) Though some members of Congress are attempting to add up to two extra shuttle flights, estimates say that up to 9,000 people who have worked on the space program in some capacity will lose their jobs. A domino effect from those losses could cost another 14,000 jobs in retail, local government, and other services. Some KSC workers have eminently transferable skills and will move into other industries. Others, especially those whose jobs are shuttle-unique, confront a bleaker prospect: retraining, forced retirement, or the unemployment line. All face a change in the coming year. Here’s how some will cope.

Tom Harpole, a writer in Avon, Montana, wrote a story about cropdusting, “That Old-Time Profession,” for the Feb./Mar. 2007 issue.

Tony Sabatino has been a crane operator in the Vehicle Assembly Building for 28 years. “When you’re lifting something worth billions of dollars, you aren’t really thinking about how cool that is, but you’re more concentrating on that next 128th of an inch where you want the orbiter to go,” he says. “I lift the shuttles about 400 feet into the high bay to stack them onto the tanks [and boosters]. At one point, I turn them 45 degrees and there’s a few inches of clearance for the wings.” Sabatino adds that there’s never been a mishap in the VAB. When the shuttle program ends, he wants to go sailing for a couple of years and then get back into operating a crane for a construction company. “But like everyone else,” he says, “I’ll never have another job this amazing, this important.”
Buddy Rogers has worked various jobs at KSC for 27 years, the last 11 as a hypergolic technician. His job is to fill the giant external tank that fuels the shuttle’s main engines. It takes three days to load the half-million gallons of oxidizer and propellant. “The booster tanks come alive — they moan and creak and rumble — and I can’t let any outside distraction, like worrying about what’s next, make me lose my focus,” he says. “You can’t do this scared. I love it and I’m staying, absolutely, baby, as long as possible. It’ll take a while to decommission [perhaps as long as 18 months after the last flight], and I hope to be in on that. Frankly, I don’t want to do anything else.” Rogers thinks NASA should throw a huge party for the thousands of people who have kept the shuttles flying all these years. “We need to celebrate in a big way all we’ve accomplished.”
Bill Schmidt leads a crew of nine electricians who maintain more than 950 lights on the East Coast’s longest runway. His main tools for keeping all those lights on are a screwdriver, wrench, and voltmeter. “One thing a lot of people don’t know is that when the shuttles land at night, the runway is lit up like a football field, all 15,000 feet of it,” says Schmidt, 59. “The astronauts can see it from 15 miles out.” The end of the shuttle era does not jeopardize his job, since the runway is used for a dozen or more takeoffs and landings each day. His employer, EG&G, recently advertised for another electrician and got more than 100 applications. Despite the job security, Schmidt says he’ll miss standing on the taxiway watching the shuttle land. “About the time you see the shuttles approach, you hear a whistling noise as the air streams over the flight surfaces,” he says. “We’re about 100 yards away and it is an amazing thing to see, and to know they’re home safe.”
Ray Trapp has a theory: “The Chinese are going to the moon and they’ll plant their flag up there and bring ours back down and put it on eBay.” Trapp, 43, came to work at KSC at age 20 right out of the Marine Corps, and he has the calm demeanor you want in the guy driving the monstrous crawler-transporter, which, with the mobile launch platform and shuttle stack on it, weighs 17.5 million pounds. But his composure wavers slightly when he mulls the thought that the United States soon will, for the foreseeable future, lose its ability to put humans in space. He’s too young to simply retire, and as a heavy equipment operator, he’s been trusted to move the most expensive and biggest piece of equipment on land. But he dreads the idea of searching the want ads. “Nothing,” he says, “will ever be as satisfying as this.”
Tile technician Charlie Romeo laments that the job losses may well force workers into “leaving paradise.” Romeo, 50, grew up on the Space Coast and at age eight was making “what I thought were pretty technical drawings of rockets.” A soft-spoken man, Romeo says he likes inspecting, along with about 100 other United Space Alliance tile techs, the 24,000 unique tiles that protect the shuttles during reentry. The shuttle now, he says, “is safer than ever and it is just a shame to be losing this capability.” He pauses, then adds, “There’s a lot of complex emotions going around. We spend more time together here than we do with our families, and deep relationships develop when the goal is so important. There are third generation workers at KSC losing their jobs.” Another pause. “Can we talk about this later?”
Lead chute worker James Murrell has the mind-boggling task of untangling, cleaning, and repairing the parachutes from the booster rockets. Once the boosters are snugged up against the sides of the retrieval ships, the vessels make their way up the Banana River to moorage near the Vehicle Assembly Building, where the parachutes are unreeled. That’s when Murrell, 57, and his 20-member crew take over. Imagine a surface the size of a Walmart covered in tangled, heavy, saltwater-encrusted parachutes that must be straightened, inspected for damage, washed, dried, and then repacked for the next launch. “I’m not ready for the rocking chair yet,” says Murrell, who has worked on every shuttle flight and has never had a parachute failure in 31 years. He has no idea what the future holds. “We hear lots of rumors, but we’re just staying focused and want to do everything correctly,” he says. “There will be some decommissioning work, and a few people are self-nominating for retirement. There’s nothing else I want to do.”
Bob Socks, 67, moved to Titusville in 1968 and began an entrepreneurial career that has ranged from running an Orange Julius stand to selling home decor to owning commercial buildings. He’s lost count of how many shuttle launches he’s seen. Socks is a member of the Titusville Chamber of Commerce and past president of the Titusville Sunrise Rotary Club. “I don’t want to let negativity get the best of me, and we have programs coming to attract high-tech industry here,” he says. “But that’ll take four to five years, and if you’re in your early 50s and spent your career on the shuttle program, you’re in trouble.” Socks says he and his fellow Rotary Club members have counted 63 empty buildings on the main streets of Titusville alone. “That’s just been happening the last three years, since the end came in sight.”
Laurilee Thompson has spent 27 of her 57 years catering to tourists, and her Titusville restaurant, the Dixie Crossroads, is for many Florida visitors a destination in itself. “You want real shrimp off a real shrimp boat caught that day, this is your place,” she says. “We’re going to feel the downturn when hundreds of thousands of people no longer show up for shuttle launches, but after the Columbia disaster [in February 2003] there were no launches for a couple years and we’re still here.” Thompson believes that periods of discontinuity offer major opportunities, and she fully expects to see the Space Coast bounce back more vital than ever once some high-tech industries discover a huge workforce ready and able to “get back at it.” She grew up working shrimp boats and, as she sees it, “you just have to go out every day and expect a catch.”
John Cox, 32, an orbiter inspector, began working for United Space Alliance seven years ago. As he saw the end of the shuttle era approaching, Cox earned an aviation tech degree and is certified as an airframe-and-powerplant technician. But, he points out, there are thousands of A&P people at KSC losing jobs, and the only place they might go is the airline industry, which is faltering. “Everyone’s holding tight,” he says. “We want to be here for that last landing.” When a shuttle lands, Cox and his colleagues are the first to touch and begin inspecting it. A scissors-lift truck pulls up and unloads the flight crew, and everyone lines up and shakes their hands while the inspectors wait for the brakes to cool. “That last lineup, I don’t know what that’ll feel like,” he says, “but we’ll hook up the tug and tow the ship in and see what’s next.” He pauses. “I’ve got a five-year-old son in the school we hoped for, so I’m hoping to at least be around for the decommissioning.”
John Fischbeck, 70, has retrieved the 150-foot-long, 12-foot-diameter solid rocket boosters on all but two shuttle missions. A master mariner, he’s tall and lean with the craggy good looks of a man who spends his life at sea. About 24 hours before a launch, Fischbeck and his crew of 10 divers and assorted seamen head to a point roughly 140 miles east of Cape Canaveral and hold a position that will have them about 10 to 15 miles from where the boosters splash down. “When the rockets hit the surface, we steam for about an hour, and if it’s a night launch we wait until dawn. The boosters are afloat, albeit about 100 feet of the rocket is underwater. The divers unfasten the three main parachutes and the drogue chute, and, if they’re not all tangled up, we winch them in on separate reels. Sometimes they’re so tangled that we have to just reel them in in one big mess.” He and his crews have done the job in 15- to 20-foot seas and never lost a rocket. Bren Wade, captain of the Liberty Star (one of the two sister ships that each brings back a booster) laughs a little when he describes taking the uninitiated on a booster-retrieval cruise: When the sonic boom of the ascending shuttle hits the ship, the passengers drop their cameras and binoculars. Both Wade and Fischbeck say the eeriest thing they recall is that when Challenger launched in January 1986, they did not hear the boom. The Liberty Star has already retrieved a booster from the first Ares launch, and Fischbeck hopes that the crews will be able to find work with Elon Musk’s SpaceX program. “There’s never been much turnover on this team,” Fischbeck says. Wade’s worry: “I don’t want to end up driving a supertanker.”
Because Gregory Cecil saw the end coming, he earned a master’s degree in aerospace management and, as a tile technician for United Space Alliance, took a buyout. “It sounds like a cliché,” he says, “but it was like leaving a family of ordinary people who teamed up and did something extraordinary. We had our hands on spaceships, and we learned how to make them increasingly safer and then Washington pulled the plug.” Cecil, 47, is convinced that NASA prevaricated on the shuttle program’s end date for a couple years to avoid the nightmare of an exodus of workers, which might have compromised the remaining missions’ safety. He had hoped to move on to the Constellation program, but that was cancelled earlier this year. Now he has grave misgivings about America’s future in space. “We won’t have the ability to put an American on the space station, in an American rocket, for at least a decade,” he says. He doesn’t hide his disappointment with President Barack Obama. “We all knew for years that the shuttle program had a sunset, but Constellation was supposed to provide human access to the space station. When Obama cancelled Constellation, he cancelled the pride that every American should have in our accomplishments.” One half of one percent of the federal budget funds NASA, and they can’t afford this program?”
Lisa Rice picks an analogy from nature to explain the Space Coast’s predicament. “We’re in a kind of a controlled burn situation. You can’t be certain of the outcome, but mostly, after the smoke clears, you’ve set the ground for new growth,” she says. Rice, 49, is president of Brevard Workforce, a private-sector group that was formed in 2007 to deal with the end of the shuttle program. She works 60-hour weeks promoting the workforce that’s about to lose thousands of jobs. “These are the highest-quality workers anywhere; their ethics, their safety practices are amazing. You could say they are in denial and that they think something will come along, as before, and save us, but most of them are staying here out of loyalty, until that last, safe landing.” The White House has pledged $15 million for retraining to help keep people afloat. In addition, the federal government will provide another $40 million for economic development in Brevard County, and some of the money will be used to hold job fairs. “High-tech industries, and not just space-related outfits, are eyeing Brevard County as a place where an exceptional workforce exists and is eager to keep working,” says Rice. The job fairs will help such industries assess the chances of establishing operations that may eventually bring more positions to the area. “The worst case is 9,000 jobs [specific to shuttle processes] going away over the next year or so,” Rice says. “Best case is 7,000 [of those jobs lost], and that doesn’t include all the layoffs by local government and private companies.”
At 79, John Johnson might be the most senior person at KSC. He volunteers as a tour guide and has escorted presidents and other luminaries. Johnson had been deputy commander of the cape’s Patrick Air Force Base. “A lot of people don’t realize that there have been more than 5,000 [launches] from the Air Force side since 1951,” he says. Johnson doesn’t mince words about the end of the shuttle era. “NASA’s biggest mistake was not starting 20 years ago planning what would come next. Now the Russians are doubling the price of a Soyuz ride.” He adds, “The other area where NASA blew it was letting the general public become indifferent towards our accomplishments. Ask 100 people how many men walked on the moon and 99 will get it wrong.” He doesn’t see that apathy changing in the years ahead. “I don’t believe these small commercial outfits, each focused on a specific rocket, are going to accomplish much,” Johnson says. “It’s like going back to the Mercury days.”
Travis Thompson, a closeout technician, is confident about the future. “I’m riding this horse into the ground,” he says. “Been doing closeout for 27 years, worked here for 32, and I’m ready for a break.” He and his colleagues on the closeout crew are the last hands to touch the shuttle before launch. The size of his crew depends on how many astronauts are on board the shuttle; with as many as seven in the flight crew, the closeout crew can swell to 23 people. “I’ve been working with some of the most amazing people on Earth,” Thompson says. “This is the all-time dream job. Hell, I grew up at Vandenberg [Air Force Base, California] watching launches.”