Where Have All the Shuttle Engineers Gone?
To new jobs, some odder than others.
- By Jeremy Davis
- Air & Space magazine, June 2013
(Page 2 of 5)
For the former shuttle engineers, getting paid is a common problem. Eddy Solon was a shuttle reliability engineer at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In the months after the shuttle program closed down, he started his own business. “We managed to get a contract after just a few months of writing proposals,” he says. “Our first one was with BAE [a British international military, security, and aerospace company], and I was thinking, This stuff is easy! It turned out that the contract never turned on. It just sat there.”
A few months later, his Space & Defense Engineering Services Company got another contract, this time from the U.S. Air Force, for replacing aging electronic parts on nuclear weapons. “Which was lucky,” he said, “because my wife was eight months pregnant at the time. We’d already exhausted our savings, so that contract couldn’t have come at a better time.” (Solon’s wife served as the company’s business manager.)
On the first day, Solon was giving an orientation program to a small cadre of engineers and support staff when the bank called. “They told us that they were pulling our loans. I asked them why and they said that the Air Force contract paid upon completion. We wouldn’t get a dime until the contract ended in six months.”
This kind of contract was news to Solon. “I didn’t understand how we were supposed to get a company up and running if we couldn’t get the money to pay our employees until after six months of work,” he says. Solon returned to his room of employees and explained the situation. “I emphasized that we’d still be getting paid, it would just be in one large installment instead of spread out over six months. I also said that if they wanted to leave now, I’d understand.”
Nobody left. For half a year, Solon’s employees worked without pay. He says: “That was a happy day when I got to call everybody back and tell them their checks came in.”
Lately, SPADESCO business has slowed. While they wait for contracts, Solon and his wife have started buying up houses to refurbish and resell.
Other former engineers started small businesses via less traditional routes. While working as a payload ground-handling engineer at Kennedy, Grayson Padrick had for years worked a second job: taking people out on the St. Johns River to hunt for alligators. “During the day, I’d be out at the launch pad getting payload into one of the orbiters, and then at night, I’d take a few clients out into the waters to hunt for gators. Every once in a while all of us from work would have a cookout and I’d be the one bringing a gator tail,” he recalls.
After the shuttle program shut down, Padrick worked on unmanned launch vehicles for a while, then decided to make his part-time gator business a full-time venture. “My dad was in the hotel business as I was growing up. And he also hunted gators. So I guess I learned both of those from him,” he says. “We started out with the hunting and soon expanded into gator processing, selling hides, selling tail meat to local restaurants.”