Shuttle program ends, pain begins

A model of a space shuttle sits on a console in the shuttle mission control center at Johnson Space Center in Houston as flight controllers prepare for the final shuttle flight.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Workers at the Kennedy Space Center always knew the end of the shuttle program would bring hard times to Florida's Space Coast.

They just couldn't predict how much pain.

Some 7,000 jobs are being cut, and potential replacement positions evaporated last year when President Barack Obama scrapped plans to return astronauts to the moon.

Soon-to-be-jobless space workers and those who've already lost their jobs are now competing for work in a labor market where more than one in 10 is unemployed.

The aerospace jobs that would be natural fits for the laid-off space workers are in places like South Carolina, Oklahoma and the Pacific Northwest. The Boeing Co. and other aerospace companies with workers at the space center are hiring some of their shuttle workers at airplane factories.

"We don't need rocket scientists to build commercial aircraft but we need smart people," said Stephen Davis, a Boeing spokesman.

And the Space Coast is still reeling from the housing crisis, making it tougher for workers to sell their homes and move elsewhere for a job.

"Everything is taking a turn for the worst, it seems like," said Kevin Smith, local president of the union for space center firefighters, paramedics and workers at emergency landing sites. "What little is out there, everybody is competing for."

The Space Coast has faced dire times before: There was a gap between the end of NASA's Apollo program in the mid-1970s and the first shuttle launch in 1981. But at least space workers and businesses had the shuttle to look forward to at the end of the six-year hiatus.

No such program exists for workers like engineer Tony Crisafulli, who will be laid off two days after Atlantis returns from the last shuttle mission in July.

"We're all out here working, knowing that we're losing our jobs in a few days," said Crisafulli, who has been at the space center for nearly 23 years.

Space workers had been looking to the Constellation moon program to cushion the blow from the shuttle program's end. The cancellation of that project eliminated 2,000 jobs.

"We were all counting on that to take us through the transition," Crisafulli said. "At least, that was something."

The Obama administration's space plan has NASA building a new capsule and giant rocket to take astronauts to an asteroid, and eventually Mars. It relies on private companies to build their own spacecraft to fly cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station.

The local jobs agency estimates that NASA infuses $1.2 billion into Florida's economy, and that two jobs are lost for each aerospace job that is eliminated.

At the height of the shuttle program, Kennedy Space Center had 17,000 employees who mostly worked for private contractors. After the shuttles retire, there will be a little over 8,500. They'll wrap up the shuttle program and prepare the orbiters for museums, work on unmanned launches and develop and test the new space capsule.

The space program has a hold on the area that goes beyond jobs and strikes at the identity of this region stretching along Florida's central Atlantic Coast. This was a sleepy coastal area known for citrus and resort hotels before it was picked in the late 1950s to be the site for the United States' blasts into the space age.

Even the area code is 3-2-1. Elementary schools are named for the shuttles and there's Astronaut High School and Satellite High School.

Raymond Steele has been struggling since he lost his job as a logistics engineer for the scrapped moon program and his marriage collapsed. But the 57-year-old is more worried about the future of the Space Coast that he still calls home.

"There is just a huge ripple effect," said Steele. "It's not just one aerospace engineer like me who gets laid off. There are wives, children, schools, restaurants. It comes down to not just jobs but communities."