I GREW UP WITH THE SPACE SHUTTLE PROGRAM. Tomorrow morning, at 5:56 AM, that program comes to an end. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, as I posted previously, it is time to move on to the next thing. On the other, there are a lot of people, both at NASA and at contractors, who have been losing their jobs, and that is going to significantly accelerate tomorrow morning at wheel stop.
More so than previously, I have come to know a number of people working for NASA in the last year through the Tweetup program. I’ve been watching as they announce that they’ve gotten the call, and that their last day is coming. These are the people who have made this program work. The astronauts take the final risk, and a big one it is. But it’s the people who work at Kennedy Space Center, at Johnson Space Center, at Michoud, Dryden, and other sites who have made that possible. They are the ones who know that their names will never be known, that they will not be going on media tours, and that they have truly uncertain futures. My friend CraftLass wrote a beautiful post about these heroes. And while nobody would argue that the astronauts are not heroes, I think even they would agree that the true heroes are the people who solve the hard problems in obscurity.
I’ve been to the Space Coast a couple times recently, and after being in Titusville for several days, I have seen what a depressed economy truly looks like. With the combination of the real estate market being where it is, and the economy in that area being even worse, nobody can afford to pick up and move to where a job might be. But despite this, the technicians, engineers, managers, and other NASA employees are doing their jobs, and responding in a dignified manner. They are true professionals. They know that tomorrow morning, Shuttle Mission Control at JSC shuts down, the last shuttle is handed over to the Transition and Retirement team, and they will be there right up until they are told they are no longer needed.
I think what bothers me most about this entire situation is the loss of so many talented people. While there are some commercial space players who have set up shop in Florida, such as SpaceX, they can only employ a fraction of the people who are losing jobs at NASA. This doesn’t even take into account people working at JSC and at other facilities. These people have years of experience with space flight; some have been at NASA for 30 years or more! It saddens me that this incredible pool of talent is dispersing. The lucky ones will be able to put their skills to use in a new job. Many others will take whatever work they can find. What is even worse is that when the commercial space business picks up in a year or two and has some real momentum, these same people will likely be tossed aside because they have a gap in their resume.
This is not how we, as a nation, should treat our heroes. I have always been of the opinion that industries will grow and change, and that we should not eschew that change because someone will lose their job as a result. Automation, improved processes, the failure of individual businesses to adapt: these are all natural changes, and we can’t avoid it just to make sure that an assembly line worker keeps his job. We cannot save the jobs, but we must save the people. It is our responsibility to help them retrain, to develop new skills that will enable them to move forwards.
I don’t know how to solve this problem. I wish I did. I wish I could tell my friends at NASA, and the myriad others who have made the dream of a little boy or girl to grow up to be a spaceman a reality, that there is a way through. I can only hope that they will keep their positive outlook, and find a path themselves.