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By the time Atlantis was launched on the last space shuttle mission in July 2011, NASA had already shed most of its engineers. ()

Where Have All the Shuttle Engineers Gone?

To new jobs, some odder than others

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“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.”

The [racing] work was very fast-paced, says Garcia. “They would ask for a part on Friday, for example. And we’d design it, prototype it, build it, and test it in the wind tunnel to have it on the car and in the race on Sunday. The pace of approval for getting new parts designed was the absolute opposite of how things worked at the space center.”

Those first few months of long nights and hectic schedules paid off quickly. Garcia says: “My first year there, Tony Stewart won the Sprint Cup Series championship. It’s such a rare thing to win a championship, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Tony ended up flying everybody out to Las Vegas on a charter flight. Each of us got to bring a guest and we all stayed at the MGM Grand. All on the company dime.”

Despite the perks of the job, the long hours and harsh winters (compared to Florida’s, at least) pushed Garcia elsewhere. She’s now back in Florida, helping design aircraft engines at Pratt & Whitney in West Palm Beach. Like many of her fellow rocket scientists, Garcia is still looking for that combination of exploration and awe that the shuttle program provided.

When the layoffs hit NASA and its contract companies in 2010 and 2011, some worried that the ensuing loss of institutional knowledge would make it difficult for the United States to mount another manned spaceflight program. Given how many workers have turned to ventures outside aerospace, those worries are probably well founded. But the skills required to launch humans into space are surprisingly similar to those used to drill for oil, or reroute flights, or win a NASCAR championship. Eddie Solon, the engineer who became a small-business owner, formed an online group called KSC Refugees. “A lot of us feel like refugees,” he says. “We’d like to think that some day there’ll be another program to work on. If it was something big, like the shuttle program, I know we’d all go back in a heartbeat.”

Jeremy Davis is a writer and engineer in Seattle.

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