Thousands of jobs will be lost as contractors for the now-defunct space program, which ended with the shuttle Atlantis’ last flight, lay off workers. Some companies have pledged to absorb the lost jobs and reassign the engineers, technicians and others who built and operated the shuttle for three decades. But thousands of people will not be that lucky, starting with 1,500 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida who will be out the door Friday.
The workers are employees of United Space Alliance, the main Houston-based contractor for the shuttle program. On Friday, they will turn in their badges and fill out paperwork to finalize a departure process that’s been in the works for months. The term is “processing out.” Each will receive a severance package.
At its peak in the early 1990s, the shuttle program employed 32,000 contractors and federal civil servants. The workforce began to ramp down in 2006, after President George W. Bush decided to retire the shuttle program this year. By early July, the number of contractors had shrunk to 5,200, with 1,110 civil servants.
Almost every federal agency hires contractors for work it may not have the expertise to do, or to save on benefit costs if the job is short-term. At NASA, the contractor’s role has been different: These workers have formed the backbone of the shuttle program.
“It’s very hard,” Robert Cabana, director of the Kennedy Space Center, said in an interview. “I know these people. I’ve worked with them. Even though they know they’re getting laid off, to a person they’ve said, ‘I’m so proud to have been a part of this program.’ ” Contractors, worried that their workforce would leave as the shuttle’s end was near, offered employees incentives to stay through the last Atlantis flight.
Friday will be the last day of work for Leonard Buffum, 44, an aerospace electronics technician with United Space Alliance who has worked on the mobile launch platform at the Kennedy Space Center for 12 years.
The safe completion of the final mission was a bittersweet moment for many of his co-workers, Buffum said in a telephone interview Thursday afternoon. “The mood was somber,” he said. “There were a lot of emotions flying around. The last shuttle comes in and then there’s nothing more.”
“There wasn’t a lot of working going on,” he added. “We were all talking about the old times. Most of us will never see each other again.”
Many of his co-workers are facing unemployment, including 10 of the 16 workers in his section. “After 30 years on this job, that’s all they know,” Buffum said. “At 55 or 60, it’s tough to find a job.”
The entire region around the space center will be hit hard, Buffum predicted. “This area’s going to be devastated,” he said. “A lot of people are going to be out of work.” Many of those unemployed will probably need to leave houses on which they still owe mortgages to find jobs in other cities, he said.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do right now,” said Jim Graham, a heavy equipment operator with United Space Alliance who loses his job Friday.
NASA has been working with county and state officials and private firms in a big effort to find jobs for laid-off employees, focusing on Florida’s “Space Coast” near Cape Canaveral, whose economy is already suffering from high unemployment. The space agency and the Office of Personnel Management are scheduled to host a job fair Tuesday in Cape Canaveral. Several federal agencies will be hiring, along with private companies.
All but a handful of NASA employees will keep working for the agency, Cabana said. There will be no layoffs. The federal workers will be reassigned to oversee new space programs getting underway now and to closing down the shuttle program — closing out contracts, preparing the shuttles for public display at museums, deciding what to do with shuttle property.
Cabana added, “It’s very hard on the civil servants to see their contractor friends leave when you’ve been working side-by-side with them.”
By September, United Space Alliance plans to lay off an additional 2,870 workers in Texas, Alabama and Florida, according to NASA officials. A spokesman for the contractor declined to comment. Other contractors, including Boeing and Lockheed Martin, have plans to lay off hundreds more workers, NASA officials said.