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Titan Rocket's Last Cape Launch a 'Bitter Pill' for Workers

Rockets named Titan havebeen fixtures in the U.S. space program for decades, launching countlessmilitary satellites, robotic scouts probing the solar system and evenastronauts. But the legacy is ending, leaving hundreds of aerospace workerssearching for new jobs.

A pair ofTitan 4 rockets, built by Lockheed Martin, are standing on their respective launchpads at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and California's VandenbergAir Force Base awaiting blastoff to carry spy satellite payloads into Earthorbit for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office.

The Cape mission is slatedfor Friday night, marking the 168th and last Titan vehicle to fly from theSpace Coast since 1959.

About 300 Lockheed Martinworkers will lose their jobs 60 days after launch, while another 125 will facethe same fate over the next year after finishing efforts to safe and secure therocket facilities and pad.

"We're very excitedabout having a launch, but it's a bitter pill that we're swallowing," saidBen Dusenbery, Lockheed Martin's director of Titanlaunch operations at the Cape.

The end of Titan at CapeCanaveral will impact upwards of 600 to 700 people, officials say, when alsocounting other companies supporting Titan such as AlliantTechsystems, Boeing and Honeywell.

"It is a pretty bigarmy that has to launch a Titan 4," said Lt. Col. Jimmy Comfort, commanderof the 3rd Space Launch Squadron at the Cape and the Air Force launch director.

Dusenbery faces an uncertain future like somany on his team.

"When I came onboardin 1980, I was the youngest guy on the crew. The average age here was 55. SoI've seen all of those folks retire and move on. We've got a whole newgeneration of folks on the program. It's become their livelihood.

"It's afamily-oriented organization. We try to establish a relationship with ouremployees here to be more like a family than just an employee. We all feel somekinship. I personally feel responsible for their livelihood after this programcomes to an end, and we're trying our darnedest to make sure they havesomething they can go to."

The Pentagon decidedseveral years ago to phase out the Titan 4, which is expensive and requires along, cumbersome process to launch. A new breed of Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets-- the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles -- were developed to replace Titan togive the country assured access to space.

With the end of Titanlooming, the Air Force and Lockheed Martin created an incentive program to keepa skilled workforce in place to conduct the final launches, which have carriedvital national security satellites into space. What's more, the DefenseDepartment is retaining all of the workers for 60 days after the last liftoffto help ease the transition. The effort has resulted in the loss of very fewpeople.

"That is a greatbenefit everybody has to keep our focus on launch," Dusenberysaid.

"You are going to beworried about your livelihood, you are going to be worried about your family,you are going to be worried about a lot of things, but when we get right downhere to the short strokes with this mission, the No. 1 priority has to bemission success. It is critical for our national security. This payload iscritical to the Air Force and our Department of Defense, and consequently it iscritical to all of the citizens of this country, usincluded."

Lockheed Martin has hostedjob fairs to assist the workers find new careers, within the space community oroutside.

"The company steppedup with our own initiative to try to help people relieve their concerns as faras job placement. The idea here is if we worry about getting you placed, you'llnot be worried about that and you'll be focused on the launch," Dusenbery said.

"I have to commendLockheed, especially, for their focus on launching the rocket and for theirleadership in doing all they can for the number of folks they may be displacingafter this launch," Comfort said.

"We've brought inseveral job fairs over the past couple of months and got people an opportunityto meet with other companies outside of Lockheed Martin in the local area....We have had success there," Dusenbery said.

"We also have jobfairs planned post-launch where we are bringing in all of the Lockheed Martinunits across the country. They are going to come in, bring the recruiters andwe're going to sit down with our folks and try to find placement for them withinLockheed Martin. Unfortunately, not many of those opportunities are in thelocal area."

Like many of hiscolleagues, Dusenbery, a 25-year employee, hopes tofind work within Lockheed Martin.

"I'm in the same boatas everybody else. I'm looking for an opportunity. I hope to stay with thecompany; I've got a lot of years with them. There are a lot of folks in thatsame boat out here in my age group. We want to stay with the company."

Of the 125 employees beingretained beyond the 60-day grace period, about 30 are headed to Vandenberg AirForce Base to help launch that 39th and final Titan 4 rocket in July.

"There'svery specific skills that we've always shared with Vandenberg," Dusenbery explained.

Meanwhile, the chores todecontaminate the Cape's Launch Complex 40, remove hazardous items and disposeof hardware is expected to last through the year as the workforce graduallydwindles down.

Plans for the pad andvarious rocket assembly buildings are uncertain as officials examine the needsfor NASA's Crew Exploration Vehicle -- the human spaceship destined to replacethe space shuttle fleet in the coming years.

But for now, everyone isfocused on seeing the final Titan soar over the Cape's horizon and their ownimmediate personal future.

"It is hard to thinkabout little more. You try to stay focused on mission success, but you can'thelp but wonder where you are going to be next year," Dusenberysaid.

"I'm sure a lot ofthese guys feel the same way I am -- when I cut, I bleed Titan. You almost feellike 'gee, I wonder if I'll be capable of doing some other kind of job.' I knowso much about this program, and it's become obsolete.

"You have to behopeful that your profession, training and skills that you've had in past yearsare still with you and you can adapt to a new job assignment. But it isconcerning and I share that with all of my peers out here. I'm sure they allhave those misgiving and concerns about where we're going."

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Justin Ray

Justin Ray is the former editor of the space launch and news site Spaceflight Now, where he covered a wide range of missions by NASA, the U.S. military and space agencies around the world. Justin was space reporter for Florida Today and served as a public affairs intern with Space Launch Delta 45 at what is now the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station before joining the Spaceflight Now team. In 2017, Justin joined the United Launch Alliance team, a commercial launch service provider.