Michele Kocen is good at math. She is also very good at computer programming, trajectory analysis, and rendezvous navigation. Add these talents to her 25 years of experience in mission control at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and you have the ideal engineer for a human spaceflight program.
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If you want to launch people—say, seven astronauts—in a reusable launch vehicle, Kocen is your gal. Her problem is the same one facing thousands of her former co-workers: Nobody does that anymore. Or at least, nobody does it in the United States or on the same scale that NASA did before the shutdown of the space shuttle program.
In the months leading up to the last shuttle flight in July 2011, NASA and its contractors shed workers at breakneck speed. Within a year of Atlantis’ final landing, United Space Alliance alone laid off more than 3,400 engineers.
So what’s a rocket scientist to do when there are no more rockets to launch? Some trade in rockets for airplanes. Others stay in the exploration business but look for oil instead of launch destinations. And a precious few—one, by my count—turn to hunting alligators.
Kocen decided to return to school. “My son and daughter were both in college, so it was funny having us all complain about professors and classes. But I love school and I’ve always had an interest in meteorology,” she says. Soon after leaving the space center, Kocen started taking classes at the University of Houston toward a master’s in atmospheric sciences.
“It was a few months after I got laid off that I was shopping for groceries in Galveston and I ran into an old friend,” says Kocen. “We’d known each other years ago through our kids, and it turned out that he’d become the manager in charge of the National Weather Service at Johnson Space Center. I mentioned to him that I was studying meteorology, so he told me he’d be in touch.”
Six months later, Kocen was back at the space center with her old badge in hand. “Two days a week, I go right back to the same building I’d worked at before. We do special forecasts for Johnson and Ellington Field—analyze National Weather Service maps and weather balloon launches out of Lake Charles [Louisiana] and Corpus Christi. Sometimes I get to use my old training when we’re listening in on the Orion vehicle status updates. They’ll say something about a desired trajectory and I’ll get to explain it to the weather people here.”
Being back at Johnson has also had its downside. “It can be awkward running into old friends in the hallways. They get excited and ask me how I got hired back and I have to tell them that I’m an unpaid intern this time around,” Kocen says.
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.)