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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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.”

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.


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