Where Have All the Shuttle Engineers Gone?
To new jobs, some odder than others.
- By Jeremy Davis
- Air & Space magazine, June 2013
(Page 3 of 5)
Padrick says he loves the night hunts the most: “We’ll be out there with the spotlight, just waiting to find a catch. Sometimes the conversation will turn to the space center and I’ll admit that I used to work on the space shuttle program. They get this shocked look on their face and I just tell them that I may be a redneck but even I used to have a day job.
“The hardest part sometimes is finding out how uninformed people are about our nation’s space program. When I tell them that I started the business after the space shuttle program got cancelled, some people tell me they didn’t realize the shuttles ever stopped flying.”
And some of what he learned during his years at NASA apply to his business today. “There was an amazing culture of safety at NASA,” says Padrick. “And I’d like to think I take some of that into the airboat with me. These can be dangerous animals. Our first move is to harpoon them and drag them into the boat. That’s 500 pounds of unhappiness and sharp teeth coming up at you, so you better believe that safety is paramount.”
Beth Horner, a mechanical engineer who used to work at Johnson’s Mission Operations Directorate, saw the end coming but struggled with denial. “It was probably two months after they announced the layoffs that I started looking for work,” she says. “It was such a dream come true for me to work on the space shuttle program that it was hard to leave that.”
Horner found what many former JSC engineers have flocked to since the shuttles stopped flying. “Houston has two things, oil and space,” she says. Many former rocket scientists likewise shifted their attention to oil.
“My new company focuses on manufacturing pumps used in oil and gas extraction,” Horner explains. “When they drill holes down deep in the earth, there’s a lot of pressure down there. So there’s a lot of engineering and stress analysis that goes into manufacturing products that can deal with that environment.”
Horner says the atmosphere at her new place is totally different from that of her old place. “We were never supposed to touch anything at the space center—spacecraft are so sensitive and susceptible to damage. But here, we’re expected to go down on the shop floor and get our hands dirty.”
Despite NASA’s insistence that the manned space program isn’t on a permanent hiatus, Horner expresses the same fatalism many engineers feel. “I have a feeling that this change, this transition into a new industry, is permanent. It’s not that I’ve totally lost interest in what’s happening in the aerospace industry. I just have a feeling that I won’t be able to go back. That doesn’t mean I don’t still miss it.”