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Space Workers Struggle A Year After Last Shuttle

Adding to the difficulties of finding a new job is the age of many of the former shuttle workers. Many spent their entire careers working on the space shuttles and are now in their 50s and 60s.

In between sending out resumes and meeting at networking events, many of the space workers are volunteering at Kennedy Space Center, giving tours to dignitaries and providing oral histories to tourists who stop by the Vehicle Assembly Building.

Even though many of the older space workers like White had years to plan for the end of the shuttle program, they stuck around, hoping to prepare the orbiters for displays in museums in Florida, Los Angeles and Washington after the program ended. They expected younger shuttle workers to move over to the successor Constellation program whose goal was to send astronauts to the moon and then Mars. But the cancellation of the Constellation program in 2010 increased the competition for those few jobs left prepping the shuttles.

Some shuttle workers, such as Kevin Harrington, had been holding out hope that the program announced after Constellation's demise â¿¿ a heavy-lift rocket system that would launch astronauts in an Orion space capsule â¿¿ would offer immediate widespread job opportunities. But the plans announced last year won't have unmanned test launches of the Space Launch System for another five years, and the first manned mission won't be for about another decade.

Private-sector companies, such as Paypal founder Elon Musk's Space X, are starting unmanned launches from Kennedy Space Center, but their need for workers doesn't come close to what was required for the shuttle program.

"We expected a little more action from our government, at least in figuring out what direction we're going to go in," said Harrington, 55, who worked on the shuttles' thermal protection system earning about $80,000 a year. "Ultimately, that would inform which direction we would go in. A lot of us thought, since we have such deep roots in the community, we could wait it out. It was hopeful at first. Now it isn't so hopeful. Things aren't moving fast."

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