Final Voyage of NASA's Space Shuttle

Shuttle Workers Face Big Layoffs as NASA Fleet Retires

Atlantis' crew stands before the orbiter following a successful landing on July 21, 2011.
Atlantis' crew stands before the orbiter following a successful landing on July 21, 2011. (Image credit: NASA TV)

Now that NASA's space shuttles are grounded for good, many of the jobs that kept the iconic program going will pass into history as well.

Today (July 22), NASA is expected to begin issuing layoff notices to about 3,200 contractors, agency officials have said.

The shuttle program ended Thursday when the shuttle Atlantis and its crew of four astronauts landed at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, capping a 13-day delivery flight to the International Space Station. The mission was NASA's 135th shuttle flight and the last hurrah of the 30-year space plane program.

Mike Leinbach, NASA's shuttle launch director, said in a post-landing briefing yesterday that emotions ran high on the runway when he and others welcomed Atlantis and its crew home for the last time.

"There were good emotions that we brought the crew home safely, and the mission's complete. Certainly sadness that it's over, and people will be moving on. Hate to see them leave, but that's a reality," Leinbach said. "I saw grown men and grown women crying today. Tears of joy, to be sure, just human emotions came out on the runway today. You couldn't suppress them." [Photos: NASA's Last Space Shuttle Landing in History]

The Atlantis astronauts, too, repeatedly told the shuttle workers how much they appreciated the years of dedication and hard work. The spaceflyers made statements on the shuttle runway, then again before a vast crowd as Atlantis was towed back to its hangar for the last time.

"Thanks for all you've done for us," mission specialist Rex Walheim said. "It' s been an amazing adventure."


Layoffs ahead

With the orbiters grounded and headed for museums, this big round of layoffs will significantly reduce the shuttle workforce, which currently stands at about 6,700 personnel, John Shannon, NASA's shuttle program officer, said before Atlantis' July 8 launch.

Those workers are no longer needed because NASA is retiring its shuttle fleet to make way for a new program aimed at deep space exploration of an asteroid by 2025, and then onto Mars by the mid-2030s.

The decision to retire the shuttles was made in 2004 by former President George W. Bush after the 2003 loss of shuttle Columbia and its crew. At the time, a moon-oriented space exploration plan was NASA's new mission. [Photos: NASA's Last Shuttle Mission in Pictures]

Last year, President Barack Obama cancelled that moon plan, replacing it with the asteroid goal. As part of the new plan, NASA will focus its gaze on deep space missions. The agency will buy seats on Russian Soyuz spaceships to fly astronauts to the space station until American-built private space taxis become available. Four different companies are developing vehicles as part of that plan.

Leinbach said the years of advance notice for the shuttle's shutdown have helped prepare the workforce for today. There are four phases of change: denial, anger, exploration and acceptance, he added.

"We've all been through that now in the shuttle program and we've accepted the fact that it's over," Leinbach said. "The finality of it, there's no doubt. It's over now, and that affects a lot of people."

But that doesn't mean NASA shouldn't shift away from the 30-year-old program, Leinbach added.

"This is a machine that we have to retire. It's a program that's over," he said, adding that the shuttle program shutdown isn't like the loss of a family member or loved one. "This is the end of the program; people will move on and do well … It's important, but it's not the end of the world. The sun will rise again tomorrow."

Space shuttle Atlantis gleamed in the darkness at it touched down on the Shuttle Landing Facility's Runway 15 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the final time. Atlantis' wheels came to a stop at 5:57:54 am on Thursday, July 21, 2011. (Image credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett)

Progressive job cuts

Cutbacks for all of NASA's prime contractors are expected to continue through the middle of August, leaving less than 1,000 people to manage the process of de-servicing and preparing the vehicles for their future homes on display at museums around the country, Shannon added.

Discovery has been promised to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., Endeavour will find a home at Los Angeles' California Science Center and Atlantis will be placed on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex in Florida.

In April, the United Space Alliance, the contractor responsible for most of the work to maintain the space shuttles, announced that it will have to lay off nearly half of its 5,600 employees in late July and into August.

At the time, United Space Alliance estimated that between 2,600 to 2,800 people could lose their jobs, "due to the completion of tasks related to day-to-day operations of the shuttle fleet," according to a statement from the contractor.

Similarly, positions have been eliminated at companies like Lockheed Martin Space System and Boeing.

Internally, NASA flight directors, who oversee ground teams in Mission Control, are also facing a time of transition.

Shuttle Mission Control shuts down

Kwatsi Alibaruho, Atlantis' lead shuttle flight director, said that while some team members will be able to find positions within the space station programs, others will likely see be required to seek employment elsewhere.

Before ending the very last shuttle flight control shift on Thursday, Atlantis' entry flight director Tony Ceccaci paused to read a statement to his team in Mission Control.

"I'd like to take this opportunity to say a few words, and this will be the last time this team will be together," Ceccaci said. "First and foremost, I want to thank you guys — my colleagues, my friends in the shuttle flight control room of mission operations."

"It's been my extreme privilege and honor to work with each one of you and have been part of this outstanding team of individuals, so dedicated and passionate about the work they do," Ceccacci added. "Each one of you should take great pride in the accomplishments you have achieved and know that you are the main reason for the success of the space shuttle program."

Ceccacci thanked the flight controllers for their hard work over the years and told them to feel immense pride in their accomplishments.

"Savor the moment," he said. "Soak it in and know you are the best, the best in the world. Your work here has made America and the world a better place. It's been an unbelievable and amazing journey."

You can follow staff writer Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow. Follow for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Denise Chow
NBC News science writer

Denise Chow is a former staff writer who then worked as assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. She spent two years with, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions, before joining the Live Science team in 2013. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University. At NBC News, Denise covers general science and climate change.