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November 2, 2012

Shuttle’s retirement move pains workers

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Space shuttle Atlantis isn’t going far to its retirement home at Kennedy Space Center’s main tourist stop. But it might as well be a world away for the workers who spent decades doting on Atlantis and NASA’s other shuttles.

Those who agreed to stay until the end — and help with the shuttles’ transition from round-the-world flying marvels to museum showpieces — now face unemployment.

NASA’s 30-year shuttle program ended more than a year ago with Atlantis the last shuttle to orbit the Earth. Now, it’s the last of three shuttles to leave the coop. Today’s one-way road trip over a mere 10 miles represents the closing chapter of what once was a passionate endeavor for so many.

The latest wave of layoff notices struck the same day last month that a small group of journalists toured Atlantis’ stripped-down crew compartment. The hangar was hushed, compared with decades past. Despite pleas from management to put on smiles, many of the technicians and engineers were in no mood for happy talk as reporters bustled about.

The way many of these workers see it, they’re being put out to pasture, too.

Joe Walsh’s walking papers are effective Dec. 7.

“Pearl Harbor Day,” the 29-year shuttle program veteran pointed out as he showed a reporter around the crew compartment.

Three-hundred jobs are set to vanish by January, with more layoffs coming in the spring.

Shuttle contractor United Space Alliance already has let go about 4,100 from Kennedy and its Florida environs since 2009. Just more than 1,000 of its employees remain at the space center; at the height of the program, there were 6,500.

President George W. Bush, in 2004, ordered the end of the shuttle program, to be followed by a new moon exploration program named Constellation. But President Barack Obama axed Constellation and set NASA’s long-term sights on asteroids and Mars, with private U.S. companies providing service to the International Space Station.

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