January 2010

IBEW Workers Face End of Shuttle Era
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Mary Ann Jackson stands beneath a massive replica of NASA's iconic space shuttle orbiter at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and fights back tears.

"It's just hard to believe this is all coming to an end," says Jackson, a field systems specialist and member of Cocoa Beach, Fla., Local 2088. "We're not sure what happens now."

It's an uncertain time for Jackson—who spent the last 26 years working on the space center's communications systems—and for the hundreds of other IBEW members who dedicate their lives and careers to getting space shuttles off the ground, into orbit, then back home to Earth again.

"There are so many people's lives affected by all this," she says. Her husband Denis is an IBEW shop steward with 17 years of service at the space center. "It's sad to think we might not have jobs soon, and tough to deal with where our work is going."

NASA is scheduled to retire the shuttle fleet by the end of this year. With just five missions left, human space flight—once one of America's most prestigious home-grown industries—is about to move overseas. By late 2010, U.S. astronauts headed into orbit will have just one surefire way to get there—aboard Russian-made, Russian-launched and Russian-controlled rockets.

"The U.S. manned space program shouldn't be outsourced to a foreign government, even temporarily," says Dan Raymond, business manager of Local 2088, which represents more than 800 space workers. "It's a national treasure, and should be treated like it. We wouldn't just give away the Statue of Liberty or something else so symbolic of our country."

But the end of the shuttle program is about more than symbolism. After the final launch in September, the U.S. will no longer be capable of sending its own astronauts into space or even be able to reach the International Space Station, paid for with $100 billion in American tax money.

Until a new generation of spacecraft can be built and perfected, U.S. astronauts will only be able to take flight inside Russia's 40-year-old Soyuz spacecraft. While the $50 million per astronaut, per flight price tag is still a fraction of the cost of launching a shuttle, there is a nearly universal fear that America will eventually pay a much higher price.

"We will be largely dependent on the Russians, and that is a terrible place for the United States to be," former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told the Washington Post. "I'm worried, and many others are worried."

Officials are concerned about a loss of U.S. prestige on the world stage, a sharp drop in the defense capabilities that a manned space program provides and a potentially huge loss of domestic jobs. Some fear NASA and its contractors could shed thousands of high-paying, high-tech union positions as early as this year.

At Kennedy Space Center alone, about 7,000 people—more than half the center's work force—could be laid off on October 1. Workers at 13 other NASA locations might also be affected, as will local unions that provide construction-related labor for the space agency, including Orlando Local 606 and Daytona Beach Local 756.

Jorge Vasquez, 52, a calibration technician who spent the past 10 years helping to fine-tune instruments onboard shuttle orbiters, is convinced his position will be among those eliminated.

"Even as a boy, working at NASA was my dream," says Vasquez, a member of Local 2088. "But when the shuttle goes, I go. There's no job for me."

IBEW members, who mostly work on the shuttle program as NASA contractors, have jobs in communications, broadcasting and engineering. Some provide telecommunications expertise on the ground, while others offer radar support for spacecraft in Earth orbit and deep space. They also staff NASA TV, the space agency's video arm that provides live coverage of missions to the media and to the world.

"Space flight has always been one of our country's most valuable assets," said IBEW International President Edwin D. Hill. "Our No. 1 priority should be keeping the technology, the know-how and the work here in America."

Russian rockets are supposed to be a stopgap measure for NASA, giving the agency five to seven years to develop and test the next generation of manned spacecraft. But the direction of the entire space program remains unclear. NASA wants to head to the moon, then Mars—ideas formulated under previous White House leadership in 2005. The Obama administration is considering whether to keep those plans in place or to continue NASA's focus on missions within Earth's immediate orbit.

"Five years is a long time," Raymond says. "If you dismantle a highly-skilled, highly-educated work force and all those people go somewhere else, you may never get them back."

The potential layoffs also come at a tough time for the U.S. economy, especially in Florida, where home prices have taken a staggering hit and unemployment is higher than the national average. Workers represented by the IBEW, some with advanced college degrees, are not likely to find similar jobs in the state or region.

"We're talking about a huge impact on a local economy, a whole state and a whole country," Raymond says, citing figures that show as many as 120,000 nationwide private sector jobs indirectly connected to the space program may also be lost or scaled back.

The U.S. and Russia have been cooperating in space since a joint space flight in the summer of 1975. The partnership was strengthened in 1995, when shuttles docked repeatedly with the Russian-owned Mir Space Station. NASA also depended on Russian rockets during a two-year grounding of U.S. spacecraft after the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

"Yes, we've had deals in the past, but that's no guarantee of what's to come in the future," says Raymond. "If we lose control of space, we lose the eyes and ears of the U.S."

Advanced planning could have saved the U.S. from its embarrassing and potentially dangerous space predicament, according to some experts. For years, presidents and other politicians failed to act on NASA's warnings that the aging shuttle fleet—which was supposed to fly only for a decade—needed to be replaced. In October, NASA successfully launched a prototype of the Ares I rocket, which, along with the Orion space capsule, could be the next generation of manned space travel. Many question why the shuttle program has to end before that new spacecraft is ready.

"Let's keep this going until we have something else," says IBEW Government Department Director Chico McGill. "America is in the middle of the worst financial crisis in decades. The government should be creating jobs for people right now, not taking them away."

Experts believe an infusion of billions of dollars—in addition to NASA's current $18 billion budget—could either extend the shuttle program or shorten the gap between the old and new technologies.

"This wonderful machine that we've been proud of for so many years is going away," says Vasquez, the soon-to-be-laid-off technician. "This is not an easy thing to swallow."

For him and hundreds of other IBEW members, a real-life countdown clock is now ticking. The end of the shuttle program gets closer each day, and no one is sure what happens when the time runs out.

Shuttle Special Video Report

Through triumph and tragedy, hundreds of IBEW members have been part of NASA's space shuttle program for the past three decades. As NASA prepares to retire the country's only manned space fleet by the end of the year, members of Cocoa Beach, Fla., Local 2088 look back on the missions they helped accomplish and reflect on the shuttle program's success. See the video report at www.ibew.org.

Atlantis lifts off from Florida's Kennedy Space Center in November 2009. NASA's final shuttle mission is scheduled for September.

Russian security officers in Kazakhstan walk alongside a Soyuz rocket headed to the launch pad. The rockets will carry U.S. astronauts into space after NASA retires the space shuttle fleet in September.