Where Have All the Shuttle Engineers Gone?

To new jobs, some odder than others

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

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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.”

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.”


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