By next summer, employment at Kennedy Space Center is expected to fall to its lowest level since before the Apollo program blasted astronauts to the moon more than 42 years ago — a fact that doesn’t surprise folks on the Space Coast but still causes many to wince.
It has been nearly eight years since then-President George W. Bush announced plans to retire the space shuttle, and the region still is struggling to find good jobs for thousands of workers whose paychecks disappeared with the end of the shuttle era.
NASA officials predict the KSC workforce will number roughly 8,200 next year — about half the 15,000 employed there in 2008. A few hundred contractors are giving the shuttles last rites before they, too, join their former colleagues in a brutal job market.
Technicians such as Lew Jamieson, who lost his job in July, have major doubts about the future.
The president of the local machinist union has sent more than 50 résumés to prospective employers but has yet to connect.
“I’m not having much success. I’m not finding anything that matches my skill set,” said Jamieson, whose last job included launch systems maintenance. “By and large, there is no work out there for people in the trade.”
He said several former shuttle workers have found jobs at Disney and a new Boeing plant in South Carolina. But few are getting work that pays near the $70,000 or more they received at KSC.
“Some people are working at Lowe’s to buy groceries,” he said.
According to Brevard Workforce, which tracks local employment figures, about 550 out of 5,000 aerospace workers who registered with the agency had found new employment as of June, though officials say the number could be larger because they rely on the workers to self-report.
A leading factor contributing to the tough job market is uncertainty at NASA itself.
As part of Bush’s plans to cancel the shuttle, he ordered NASA to launch a new program to send astronauts back to the moon that would “conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014,” he said in 2004.
But that program, later dubbed Constellation, was canceled last year, and only in the past month has NASA replaced it with a new exploration program, which aims to have a first manned mission around 2021 — to a destination yet to be selected.
The repeated delays are especially hard on KSC, whose prime purpose has been processing NASA spacecraft for launch. Without launches, there’s no need to keep a standing army of technicians.
“The rough estimates we have, through the summer, is as low as 8,200, although we may have fewer layoffs than that,” said KSC spokesman Allard Beutel.
KSC employs about 9,000 civil servants and contractors, but that number is expected to fall again next year when the workers responsible for closing out the shuttle program finish their assignment.
Those remaining, including about 2,100 NASA civil servants, will continue doing other jobs such as engineering work for other agency programs, launch support for science missions and space-station research.
Beutel estimated that employment would pick up again in 2013 when NASA gets closer to debuting its new Space Launch System and that KSC would be “back up to 10,000 employees within five years.”
To fill the gap until then, several economic groups, such as Space Florida and the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast, have been busy lobbying businesses to expand or relocate to the area — with some success.
Their efforts have yielded an estimated 1,200 jobs that have been filled — or will be filled — in the next couple of years, with many clustered around Melbourne International Airport.
Embraer, an aircraft manufacturer from Brazil, in February opened a plant there and will use 200 local workers to help build executive jets. Similarly, Midair USA expects to break ground on a new facility there by year’s end that ultimately will employ 450 workers.
“A lot of those high-skilled jobs are easily translated from the aerospace industry, where things have to be perfect,” said Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.).
He is co-sponsoring a measure with Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.) that would make it easier for Brevard County businesses to get government contracts.
Still, much of the recovery effort has been hindered by the overall decline in the national economy. Adding to the misery is reduced federal spending.
When he visited KSC last year, President Obama pledged $40 million to help the area rebuild. Nearly all that money, however, disappeared during budget battles, and the jewel of his plan — a $5 million spaceflight facility for the Federal Aviation Administration at KSC — remains in limbo.
There are, however, some bright spots.
Space Florida recently netted a roughly $2 million federal grant that aims to bolster the creation of clean-energy startup companies, which the agency expects to create 200 or more jobs in two years.
Another potential area of expansion is in commercial spaceflight, where several companies, such as SpaceX of California, are working to provide a taxi service to the international space station.
Like NASA’s new rocket, funding for commercial space operations has been locked in a long-standing — and sometimes bitter — fight in Washington, and the industry’s ability to hire workers depends on its success and its ability to get federal dollars.
SpaceX employs about 60 full-time workers in Florida and projects as many as 420 in the state by 2015.
But waiting for those jobs — or work again with NASA — could be too much for ex-shuttle workers such as Jamieson.
“Turning things around in a couple years? I hope they’re right. But I certainly have my doubts,” he said. “In two years, a lot of things can happen to an individual financially. It’s going to be a long two years for a lot of folks.”