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Atlantis is scheduled for its final launch on FridayImage: AP

Shuttle countdown

July 7, 2011

As the final American space shuttle mission looms, the Florida space community still has a few more months of its own last mission work to come.


The last mission of the American space shuttle Atlantis is due to launch on Friday. It will be the final liftoff of NASA's space shuttle program. For many people at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, that means the loss of their jobs.

Some of these final employees work at the Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB, as NASA employees call it, is one of the largest building in the world. The VAB is huge, over 12,000 square meters (130,000 square feet) in area, and 160 meters (525 feet) high. It's the place where the space shuttle was prepared for the flight to the International Space Station.

"I worked my way up to this position," explained Bobby Williams, a 24-year NASA veteran.

Bobby Williams
Williams has been at the agency for over 20 yearsImage: DW

"I started out as a technician at the RPSF, which is the process rotation facility, working on the boosters. And then I moved into the ET-world, where I was working on external tank. And the next job opened up and I applied for it and got it. So, I worked my way up the ladder. So no college."

But that means that Williams won't have much more to do in the coming months. He said he's not sure what his next move after NASA will be.

Like much of the Kennedy Space Center, the Vehicle Assembly Building is going to be mothballed and kept at-the-ready. For now, Williams still has a job, as do many of his colleagues. A long-term decision on what to do with the facility is expected to come within two years.

Contractors affected too

A few weeks later the first wave of layoffs will occur at United Space Alliance, NASA's largest subcontractor for shuttle missions. The company operates in Florida and at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where astronauts are trained, as well as in Alabama, where shuttle software and hardware are assembled.

"It affects employees all over our organizations: engineers, technicians, administrative folks, managers," Tracy Yates, a United Space Alliance spokesperson, said of the end of the shuttle program. "It's across the board - up and down the structure of the company."

NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building
NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building is one of the landmark space program structuresImage: DW

When the space race was at its height, 10,000 Americans worked in some way as part of the space program, but that was long ago. Since 2009, employees have retired or lost their jobs. By the end of August 2011, half of the shuttle program's 5,000 employees will be cut.

"We've done everything we can think of to try to help make the transition as smooth as possible," Yates said.

One of those transitioning is Jim Tulley, the mayor of Titusville, a small town of 45,000 people near Cape Canaveral that's just across a small bay from the Kennedy Space Center. Before retiring in 2009, he was a software developer for United Space Alliance and spent more than 25 years in the aerospace industry.

"I shed a tear a little bit," he said. "But life goes on. People will adapt, and the next program will come along and it'll be better than the last program."

Transitioning to the next step

But Tulley's optimism cannot hide the fact that many Titusville homes are empty and dilapidated, and on a Friday night not much is happening on Main Street. However, he noted that even in the absence of the shuttle, the American space program will move forward.

Jim Tulley is the mayor of nearby Titusville, Florida
Jim Tulley is the mayor of nearby Titusville, FloridaImage: DW

"The commercial launches will actually be more frequent - I'm sure of this - than NASA-launches," he said. "And that's not to say, they won't be safe. They will be safe. But the commercial-people will figure out how to do it faster, better and cheaper. They just will, because it's the nature of commercial enterprise.

But in the more immediate term, there's another job that's keeping a lot of people busy - taking care of the final days of the space shuttle Discovery. Since its decommissioning earlier this year, it now sits in a Florida hangar with its nose cargo door open.

"We have a hypergel that has to come off, cryogenics, freon, ammonia, hydrolics. So we are going to be basically deservicing the vehicle," said Stephanie Stilson, the head of production for Discovery. "We need to take those hazards away, so that when Discovery for instance is sitting in the Smithsonian, individuals can walk around it with no fear."

The process will take nine more months. In April 2012, Discovery will be transported on the back of a Boeing 747 to Washington DC, where it will sit in one of the museums of the Smithsonian Institution.

"I kind of maybe put my head in the sand a little bit about it, really being the end," Stilson said.

"I'm just pressing forward with the work that we have. Fortunately I'll get to do that same type of activity with Atlantis and Endeavour after their final flights. So, right now I think where the emotional part will come in from me will be once we take Discovery to the Smithsonian and it's time for me to walk away."

Author: Christina Bergmann, Kennedy Space Center / cjf

Editor: Sean Sinico

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