Despite some sensational headlines, the end of the space shuttle program this summer isn’t the end of the Space Age or Americans in space. It is, though, the end of thousands of jobs for NASA employees and those who work for the agency’s contractors.
Without a need to fuel shuttles, glue tiles to the underside of spacecrafts, clean shuttle interiors after missions, and the thousands of other tasks that need to be completed, it’s a “hard, cold fact that they will lose their jobs,” said Henry R. Hertzfeld, research professor for George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.
But for states where both NASA and contract shuttle workers live in large numbers, the end of the shuttle program and subsequent job losses doesn’t necessarily mean the end of either American space exploration or those states’ and communities’ role in that exploration.
How many workers are there and how many will soon lose their jobs? In 2007 (the latest date for which there are concrete figures, according to NASA), there were about 17,000 people across the nation employed by the program and 1,213 suppliers in 42 states. And 83 percent of NASA workers and contractors who responded to a 2009 survey said that they intended to stay through the end of the shuttle program, up from 66 percent in 2006.
Even after taking into consideration that the percentage of workers who intended to stay to the end may have skewed the survey result (they were still employed, after all), it still indicates that a large number of people in “shuttle communities” have yet to leave their jobs.
Many of the remaining workers live in and around Florida’s Brevard County, which is expected to be particularly hard-hit by job losses. Home to NASA facilities that include Cape Canaveral, the county is expected to take the brunt of the layoffs of at least 7,000 Florida workers , said Joan Van Scyoc, who is with Brevard County Workforce, a nonprofit that is tracking shuttle-related and other job losses in the county. Of those 7,000 workers, Van Scyoc said, 4,500 have already lost their jobs and another 2,500 will be unemployed after the Atlantis makes the final shuttle landing.
Van Scyoc added that another 2,000 people already have been or will be laid off as a result of the cancellation of the Constellation program, which was to be the successor to the shuttles in the human-spaceflight program.
Alabama, home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, is another state that’s been at the forefront of the shuttle program. The situation there doesn’t appear as tenuous, although that probably doesn’t provide too much comfort to the state’s affected workers. United Space Alliance, a primary NASA contractor, announced in April that 30 to 40 of its employees would be let go at the end of the shuttle program.
With layoffs looming, one might expect that many of these highly skilled, highly educated workers might look elsewhere for future employment, causing a brain-drain in the affected areas. Despite this prospect, Florida state officials and local Alabama businessmen sound optimistic about their communities’ space future—and perhaps with good reason.
In particular, Florida seems to be going all out to make sure that the end of the shuttle program isn’t the end of the space industry in Brevard County and elsewhere in the state. The state wants to “triple the size of the aerospace industry by 2020,” said Tina Lange, a spokeswoman with Space Florida, the state’s aerospace economic-development agency.
To do that, Space Florida is making the pitch to federal agencies and commercial companies that Florida is well-suited to the development of the space industry. What makes the state ideal, said Lange, is its developed infrastructure for launches and other space-related activities for the development of defense technologies, alternative energy sources, life-sciences research, and a host of other activities.
Alabama’s Huntsville-area business community isn’t taking things lying down either.
“Any company that is serious about building rockets for human exploration either has an office in the region or should be considering opening an office here,” Mark Ward, the vice president of government affairs for the Chamber of Commerce for Huntsville/Madison County, said in a statement. “Almost all of the potential commercial launch providers have offices in the area—and for good reason. As the birthplace of our nation’s launch capabilities, we have tremendous resources to support these companies.” He pointed out that United Launch Alliance, a 50-50 partnership between NASA contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has a plant in the area producing both Delta and Atlas rockets, “accounting for six of the nine U.S. nonshuttle launches this year.”
But after sifting through the pitches, is there any basis for the optimism?
The answer is a qualified yes, and it’s a caveat that harkens back to the recently dispossessed shuttle workers.
Future success depends on the shuttle workers finding work in the space industry, which will only happen if states, such as Florida, and communities, such as Huntsville, arcross the nation stay committed to their efforts to develop and encourage space-related industries. If states and communities don’t follow through, these highly skilled, highly educated workers will pick up and move, putting future success in doubt.
This article appears in the July 11, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.