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As Space Shuttle Program Nears End, So Do Jobs

The space shuttle Endeavour lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.,  May 16, 2011
The space shuttle Endeavour lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., May 16, 2011

As crew members of the upcoming NASA space shuttle mission prepare for the final flight of the shuttle program, they say they are inspired by NASA's accomplishments, but also about the retirement of the shuttle fleet and lay-offs among the NASA community.  

To the uninitiated, it might sound like people speaking in code - or gibberish - but that is the sound of astronauts and mission controllers in Houston communicating during an ascent simulation ahead of next month's launch of the space shuttle Atlantis.

Astronaut Chris Ferguson, commander of the upcoming Atlantis mission, told reporters at the Johnson Space Center in Houston that while the astronauts are in space, their lives are in the hands of those on the ground.

"We count on those guys to get us through," said Ferguson.

Members of the Atlantis crew say that while their mission is at the forefront of their thoughts, the fact that this is the final shuttle flight is in the back of their minds.

It means saying good-bye to the shuttles - and good-bye to contract workers who have long worked on the shuttles at both Kennedy and Johnson Space Centers.

Again, Commander Ferguson:

"It's a pivotal time for them in their lives," he said. "They want to see the shuttle program through as safely and as successfully as the missions that preceded it, but at the same time, they have other factors on their minds as well."

Other factors, Ferguson said, such as what they are going to do when Atlantis returns to Earth and the shuttle program ends.

NASA relies heavily on contractors for its shuttle program.  According to figures provided by the space agency, as of last month, five out of every six people working on the shuttle program were contractors.  

Once this mission is over, NASA's 1,100 full-time employees dedicated to the shuttle program will be absorbed into other NASA divisions - but thousands of contractors are not guaranteed work at the U.S. space agency.

Much of the contract work has already dried up.  During the past five years, the number of contractors working on the shuttle program dropped from 14,000 to about 5,000.  That figure will decline even further once Atlantis returns.   

Astronaut Sandra Magnus, one of the four members of the Atlantis crew, said the program's end has not hit her completely, but instead "in bits and pieces."  She told reporters about a trip to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in April to look at the orbiter and review the hardware with the ground team.

"And the day after we had this test, about half the team we were working with was going to be let go," said Magnus. "That was their last day.  And that was really, for me, the first time it became, I guess I became emotional about it, because it was just so. . . It was very sad, but it was also very inspiring."

Magnus said she was struck by the dedication of the workforce.

"Even though they were leaving a job that they had for decades, they were still very excited about being a part of the space program, and they were very determined that they were going to give us Atlantis in the best shape it could be in," she said.

NASA is ending the 30-year-old shuttle program to focus on creating spacecraft that can go to asteroids or Mars.

Atlantis, the final shuttle to launch, is set to lift off July 8.

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