As NASA’s space shuttle program comes to an end, the agency is looking at ways to lessen the harsh reality that will result from nearly 6,300 lay-offs.
Since the nineties, the number of employees at the shuttle program has dropped from approximately 32,000 to the current 5,000 prime contractors and 1,000 civil servants that make up the workforce, according to Sue Leibert from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Even though the final Atlantis mission has launched, Leibert, who leads the center’s space shuttle transition liaison office, said that there are still two final missions left for the team to complete upon the shuttle’s return.
First, she said the team will undergo down-mission processing, which lasts approximately 30 to 60 days after Atlantis arrives and involves working on its parts and discarding hazardous materials. She added that there will be a subsequent two-year process to prepare the shuttle for display and to decide what the team will do with parts such as the pumps and engines.
As the program winds down, Leibert said that the team is working on the current shuttle mission and that some workers have started to consider what they will do with the artifacts of the shuttle after its return.
The agency is estimating reducing its number of prime contractors to 1,000 by the end of fiscal year 2012 and then to 400 contractors in FY13, but she added that civil servant workers, by law, will not be at risk.
Because building contractors, such as the Louisiana and Utah centers, contribute shuttle materials in advance of the shuttle launch, Leibert said the sites have already completed the majority of their layoffs. However, she said that Alabama, Florida and Texas agencies are next for employee dismissals.
NASA is helping the exiting workers to cope with unemployment in various ways. She also said that sites typically used employee transition center at the state or local level to provide networking, workshops, and job opportunities. Also she said that the sites had conducted virtual job fairs, financial management training as well as information on resume writing and unemployment application.
Leibert said more than 1,200 job seekers and 80 employers participated in job fair held in Texas. She also said that the Office of Personnel Management and the Florida site will host a joint job-fair to bring both federal agencies and private sector employers together. She added, “It will be kind of a chance for the laid-off workforce to hit both sides at once which will be a great partnership.”
Additionally, Leibert said that there will be future opportunities for jobs, much like the ones at the shuttle program, to transfer to private industry. However, she added that she is not certain about the time that it will take to create those jobs or how smooth the transition will be.
“There is a gap for us, we know that,” Leibert added. “There will be jobs in that industry, but as one is winding down the new one is starting up, but they don’t quite overlap as tightly as we like.”
On the economic side, she said that NASA is looking at the ways that communities will bring in additional jobs in the field, but that she also thinks the number of available jobs will be lower than in past years.
On the other hand, Leibert said the commitment of space shuttle program workers has been “very inspiring” over her time.
“Folks really like the shuttle program,” she said. “There’s a real strong sense of community, a strong sense of family, and so people really wanted to stay until the end of the program.”
She said retention bonuses as well as economic factors served as an incentive for many workers to stay at the program as well.
As for the future, she said that NASA is certainly not shutting its doors but will be changing their way doing exploration. In response to controversy about the agency’s closing, she added, “It is an impact because there is a gap in the old way of doing business, and if you will, and in the new way of doing business.”
Leibert said that the new NASA will most likely see a “more geographically dispersed workforce.” But technology will be more useful, because, she said, “You don’t have to be face-to-face to do your work anymore.”