Ave Atque Vale

I was invited to speak to the assembled folks out in Utah who have just cast the last shuttle solid rocket segment.  A few retirees and spouses made the event, but the crowd of over 2,000 was mostly active workers. 



Over a year ago in this blog space I told you that the horse has left the barn and the shuttle was shutting down.  Now we are seeing evidence every day. However you feel about that, the direction has not changed. 


If there is anyone out there who thinks otherwise, . . . well.


For 30 years, the United States and its international partners have relied on the space shuttle:  costly, not as safe as we need, sometimes not very reliable, and now that is coming to an end. 


Four years ago, we had terminated contracts with 95% of the suppliers for parts for the external tanks.  This has continued apace.  For example, last week the contract was terminated for the suppliers of the specialized chemicals to make the black coating of the shuttle thermal insulation tiles. Also being shut down is the production of reinforced carbon-carbon wing leading edge panels.  The folks up in the Dallas area are getting ready to take apart the one-of-a-kind jigs that are used in that process and clearing out the factory.  Any museums want this thing?


The external tank folks reported this week that the last ET has moved out of yet another workstation which is now surplus and ready for removal.  Welding has been complete for some time, cleaning, painting, and foam application are still active.  The MAF workforce is down to about half of what it was a few years ago.



In the 1990s, almost 25,000 people worked for shuttle:  civil servants and prime contractors.  (This does not include subcontractors and vendors).  By 2002, only about 16,000 folks worked on shuttle.  There was a little peak for return to flight, but by 2006, the headcount was down to 16,000 again.  Now there are about 12,000.  And the number will decrease precipitously over the next year.


This is not to make you feel good or bad or whatever, just a status report. 


Working in America’s space program is a privilege.  Change is coming every day, and however you feel about the change, a wise person will be ready for it.



8 thoughts on “Ave Atque Vale”

  1. Photos of shuttle factories are rare & low resolution. Wish more effort was invested in documenting them when we had the chance. Unfortunately we’re not up on the latest blog lingo. Got to create the Ave Atque Vane Hale blog.

  2. The head counts are staggering for a program that was supposed to be out of R & D, the fleet built and work essentially being supply of consumables, maintenance and flight operations.

    It would be interesting to know the expected head counts for Ares I & V.

    We are obviously still a long way from the ‘once in a life time’ holiday trip to LEO!!!

  3. Thanks for the facts, Wayne.

    I might not always feel like I have anything to add by commenting, but I truly enjoy these insights. Keep ’em coming, please.

    I’m a hopeless, pointless, romantic — so this one made me a little misty. This is a Big Change…

    (hey, Museums! Speak up now!)

  4. Yes, it’s history any time the last of something rolls off the assembly lines. I remember what a big deal it was when the “last convertible”, a Cadillac Eldorado, rolled off the assembly line.

    There have been plenty of convertibles made since then.

    The last Plymouth Superbird, the last Concorde, et cetera. It happens.

    A few weeks ago, I asked Dr. Griffin if NASA had performed any studies to determine a cost for complying with the CAIB recertification recommendation. He said that the agency had not.

    When you think about this, it’s clear that had this study been done, it would give the impression that NASA was considering continuing to fly the shuttles.

    From a functional viewpoint, it is illogical that we scrap our existing capabilities in the pursuit of the new. There already exists a method of getting people into space (Apollo, Soyuz, Shuttle) as well as a method of getting large, heavy objects into space (Shuttle).

    I wonder if I could rent a Superbird to drive to Florida for the last mission…?

  5. I hope we are not seeing another “Apollo” moment when great hardware was tossed out. The GAP (Shuttle to Orion) is just plain wrong wrong wrong – like the gap from Apollo to Shuttle was just plain wrong. I hope in 10 years we can look back after the first Orion/Altair crew has returned ex lunar and say yes – the wait was worth it. I sadly doubt that’s going to be the case.

  6. Wayne, I’m glad you posted this. It is surely bittersweet for all of us who have worked and contributed to spaceflight over the years, but we all knew that these days would come at some point. When Laura and I left Houston, now seven years ago, the rumors were just a thunderstorm over the horizon, still distant, but the flashes and rumbles telling you the day the was coming.

    It is a daunting thing to step out away from a familiar job, place and time of your life, especially one you really loved and found satisfying in so many ways. All of the people out there, who are moving on from Shuttle work can look back in pride at what we did and know that we were part of something that will go down in history. Each and every one will take some of that with them on to their next endeavor and be better for it.

    Thanks for documenting some of those moments.

  7. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the way forward for launch vehicle(s) to put this loss of capability in perspective.

  8. With all the discussion of which vehicle should NASA be using to ride us back into space, why isn’t the Soyuz concept more actively talked about? The Chinese manned space program borrows heavily from the Soyuz architecture. The ESA is buying soyuz rockets to launch from Guyana. While it isn’t pretty and at present can only accomodate 3 people – why does Constellation seem wedded to the Apollo-derived conical shape? Why can’t we just buy or devise our own soyuz derivative for a quicker, cheaper ride to LEO?

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