JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, HOUSTON, July 21, 2011 -- The sadness at the Johnson Space Center is as pervasive as the Texas humidity. The end of the space shuttle program means thousands of uniquely talented people will be out of work.
Dave Nelson knows his future is uncertain. His job has been to put astronauts through the wringer in NASA's motion based launch simulator, a cockpit designed to move and shake much like the real ship. Astronaut-pilots never knew Nelson would throw at them as they practiced liftoffs. A multiple engine failure? Abort to orbit? Transatlantic landing in Spain? Nelson could tell his computers to make a shuttle land in stiff crosswinds, and then whip it into a 360-degree spin on the runway.
The astronauts of Atlantis honed their skills with Nelson's help, and he now is wondering where to take his skills.
"This has been my life for 30 years, and it is hard to believe it is coming to an end," he said. Nelson and some of his colleagues say they understand the shuttle program needs to end -- what they don't understand is why there isn't a rocket on the launch pad waiting to take its place.
Politics, governmental and corporate, have always played a role in space policy. Replacements for the shuttles have been proposed, designed -- and cancelled -- since the 1990s.
NASA, under orders from the Obama administration, has made the decision to cede low Earth orbit -- those taxi flights back and forth to the space station -- to commercial providers such as SpaceX and Sierra Nevada, and turn its attention to deep space exploration.
Frank Svrcek said he understands the need to retire the space shuttle, but that won't make it any easier to dismantle OV-095, the orbiter at the Johnson Space Center that was used to replicate the space shuttle's workings on orbit. His team, for 30 years, would troubleshoot issues on the orbiters when they were in space. Americans, he says, should be proud of the space shuttle. "We built this, we launched it and we bring it back time and time again. That is the wonderful accomplishment that we are able to do, that Americans are able to do. We did this. These are American companies who made it work time and time again."
Svrcek will finish working in August; his orbiter will be dismantled by the end of December.
His colleague Lamar Gordon still drives the same red Firebird he had when he moved to Texas 30 years ago on temporary assignment as a launch process systems engineer for United Space Alliance, a NASA contractor.
"Thank God I was able to set some money aside, I set aside a good three- or four-year nest egg for myself. I am too young to retire so I have to set something aside, for a rainy day. The bigger problem is insurance that is going to eat us up."
Astronaut Sandy Magnus, who was on Atlantis' final crew, said the astronauts never missed an opportunity to say thank you to the thousands of people who made their flight possible.
"People see a shuttle launch and it looks really easy to them -- there goes another shuttle," said Magnus before flight. "Little do they know. You don't stop to think about the thousands, literally thousands of people who have to do everything right all of the time for a shuttle launch to come off successfully. It is not simple, we do it so well because of these people who are so dedicated, so experienced, so loyal, so passionate."
Space historians will write that on July 21, 2011, Atlantis, on the final flight of the space shuttle program, landed safely at the Kennedy Space Center. On July 22, 2,800 employees there were to receive layoff notices.