Where Have All the Shuttle Engineers Gone?
To new jobs, some odder than others.
- By Jeremy Davis
- Air & Space magazine, June 2013
(Page 4 of 5)
Perry Lewis, a former Johnson robotics flight controller, thought about where he might apply the skills he’d been using at NASA. “I used to talk with the astronauts, leading them through their on-orbit activities, so I concentrated on where I could use that ability to communicate effectively while still using my engineering skills,” he says.
Lewis came up with three industries that had a level of “operational complexity” similar to that of the space shuttle program: the military, the cruise-line business, and the airlines. “The military obviously requires a lot of logistics, but consider a single cruise ship: thousands of people, all requiring food, entertainment, travel arrangements. It must be an enormous operation. And of course, you can just look at your average airport to see the complexity involved in shuttling people around the country. These all present challenges that aren’t that different from doing an on-orbit repair.”
Today, you can find Lewis on the 27th floor of Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago, where he is an airline dispatcher. “I work in the Network Operations Center for United Airlines,” he says. “We run 6,000 flights every day, 40 to 60 of which come across my desk. I juggle weather, fuel, desired routes for all these flights, and use that information to release each flight.
“You have the pilot, the air traffic controller, and then you have me. Most people don’t realize my job even exists. But if you’ve ever been on a flight that’s set to leave and the pilot says he’s waiting for paperwork to clear before they can push back, that’s me. I’m that paperwork.”
Lewis says that working for United Airlines doesn’t have the kind of “wow” factor that working at Johnson did, “but this is about being happy. Working at JSC was the most incredible thing I could ever have imagined doing, but I came to the realization pretty quick that what all of us had come to love [the space shuttle program] was gone and it wasn’t coming back.”
Lewis’ friend Mike Bohac faced a similar realization at Johnson. He and Lewis had worked together on the shuttle remote manipulator system—the arm—but when the layoffs started, Bohac took his cues from his family’s history and his respect for the astronauts. “Many of my family members have served in our nation’s military, so that had always been a dream,” he says. “But while I was the primary mission designer for STS-129, I was impressed by the intelligence, cohesiveness, and professionalism of that astronaut crew.” What sealed the deal for Bohac was the fact that four of the seven members of the -129 crew had military backgrounds. He soon became a lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps.
“My peers [in the Corps] think I’m nuts for leaving the space shuttle program, or even NASA for that matter.” But serving in the military has been a dream come true, he says. “Going from being a provisional infantry rifle platoon commander to an artillery forward observer and just recently having the chance to serve as a 120-mm mortar platoon commander in the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit has definitely been a wild ride!” he e-mailed from a Navy ship.
Perhaps no one has had a wilder ride—or at least supplied a wilder ride—than Helen Garcia. After working in the thermal protection system group at Kennedy, she was snapped up by Stewart-Haas Racing in Kannapolis, North Carolina. “They seemed really excited to have someone from the shuttle program,” she says. “Their public relations department interviewed me about my work on shuttle and they put me in their quarterly newsletter.”