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Shuttle workers grapple with reinventing themselves

By Rich Phillips, CNN Senior Producer
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Shuttle workers spaced out of jobs
  • Thousands of space station employees to be laid off soon
  • Only a few hundred have found new jobs
  • Some will retire, others go back to school
  • Some hope to pass on their specialized skills

Cocoa Beach, Florida (CNN) -- When the commander of Atlantis calls, "Wheels stop," upon landing this week, Ray Zink and Billy McClure will be waiting.

They will lead the team that will secure the space plane for the final time, marking the end of the U.S. space shuttle program.

"Launching is always optional, but landing is always mandatory," jokes McClure.

"What a great ride for America. It's doing what others dream. We were there, and we helped put Americans into space," he said.

McClure has been here for every shuttle launch since 1981. He helped John Glenn off his 1998 shuttle flight, and his father worked on the Atlas rocket that sent Glenn into space in his Mercury capsule in 1962.

But their dream is now ending too. "Wheels stop" will also mark the end to many jobs at the Kennedy Space Center.

Once Atlantis lands, 2,300 shuttle workers are expected to be laid off later this week. In August, another 1,000 will get their pink slips. About 8,000 shuttle workers, in total, who live in the area of the Kennedy Space Center will be unemployed due to the end of the shuttle program.

For Billy McClure, his next chapter may be retirement.

"I want to do something I want to do," he said.

Ray Zink is the runway move director. He's trying to be positive.

At the shuttle landing facility, he and his team are prepping their vehicles to meet Atlantis. He's already thinking about his next life adventure.

"We all have a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge and we'd love to pass it on to another generation," he told CNN.

"I want to open a business where we have labs and hands-on experiments and places where we can go into schools and talk to kids ... and just sort of inspire kids," he said.

Zink and McClure will have jobs for the next year or so. They'll be involved in the transition of the orbiters from flight-ready to museum-ready, and will help deliver them to their new destinations.

But Bill Bender doesn't know what his next destination is.

He was laid off five months ago. For 25 years, Bender worked a variety of jobs. He ran the imaging department that photographs repairs on the shuttles, plus launches and landings.

He has found far too many people vying for far too few jobs.

"I've got 13 years of experience and education and things that are valuable," Bender said.

"I thought that that would weigh a lot, but there are a lot of people, with probably more education and more specialized skills, so I'm believing the competition is more fierce than I originally thought," he said.

Now, Bender is looking for jobs in other parts of Florida, other parts of the country and is even looking into surveillance work in defense imaging systems, for a contractor in Afghanistan. A long road away from shuttle.

"It was rewarding, it was fulfilling, it was exciting just to be a part of it, and I still want to be part of it," he said, sadly.

"But I'm getting to this point that maybe I need to let it go and look at other things and look after myself," he added.

The state of Florida is committing $43 million for the space industry this year. The state is trying to triple the size of Florida's aerospace industry by 2020 -- and to attract the next generation of space business.

But, for right now, there are thousands of highly specialized shuttle workers who need jobs.

"I'd like to talk to people from Silicon Valley to get them to come here," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

"This is an incredibly rich area of the country and I think people are missing a bet here. They're missing out on the most talented work force in the world. I have people here who can do anything," he told CNN.

But, so far, only about 550 former shuttle workers have found work, according to Brevard Workforce, which offers career counseling services and advice to the unemployed aerospace community.

Stephanie Estrada saw the writing on the wall. For years, she was a logistics engineer who packed experiments, clothing and tools bound for the International Space Station. With the shuttle program winding down, she kicked in her backup plan and went to law school at night and got her degree.

She left her space job before the pink slip could come and began a new life as an attorney doing trust and probate work.

"When the opportunity presented itself, I had to jump. I don't think I could have scripted it any better," she told CNN.

And, she says, one of the more important things:

"It all worked out. I still receive a paycheck."