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Space Workers, Families Cope with Shuttle Program's End


July 05, 2011 | WMFE - The end of the shuttle program will leave some 9,000 workers at Kennedy Space Center without jobs, and the layoffs are causing uncertainty for the workers and their families.

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[Photo, at left: Cyndi Cole displays the ring she received on the 20th anniversary of her employment with the space shuttle program]

Last month, about three dozen shuttle veterans met at Fishlips Waterfront Bar and Grill in Cape Canaveral to celebrate their time with the space program. Many of them have worked together for decades, but that’s all changing. Some have already been laid off, while others will get their pink slips in late July after the last shuttle launch. Still others, like aerospace engineer Ivan Sanchez, found other jobs without waiting for the layoff notice. 

“Nobody knew who was going to be kept or laid off,” Sanchez says, “so, I had begun to look already. And I was fortunate enough to get an offer." 

Shuttle program veteran Bill Street took a voluntary layoff in April, after working as an aerospace technician at Kennedy Space Center for 31 years.

“The program coming to an end was getting depressing … and there was a lot of people that needed to stay employed,” says Street. “I felt that I was in a position to go ahead and take a layoff, and maybe save someone’s job.”

Street feels fortunate that his wife has a good job, and he can lean on her for awhile. He plans to spend some time volunteering at his church before deciding whether to go back to work until he reaches retirement age in six years.

Cyndi Cole is sticking around until the end of July. She works on the shuttle’s launch computers, and she’s preparing for life after the final mission.

“I’ve gone back to school,” she says. “I’m getting my bachelor’s [degree] in electrical engineering. It’s exciting because there’s a lot of areas I can go into at this point. But it’s also a little nerve-wracking, because this is all I’ve known.”

Cole says she’s had unforgettable experiences working at Kennedy Space Center for over 21 years.

“I sat in the captain’s chair of Discovery,” she marvels. “How many people can say that?”

The shuttle layoffs aren’t just affecting the workers themselves, though. Many of their families are facing uncertainty, too. One major concern is healthcare, as the insurance benefits many families depend on disappear along with the shuttle jobs.

Lee Hill’s family is among those searching for answers. Hill works with Cyndi Cole, repairing launch computers for the shuttle program. His 21-year career at Kennedy Space Center is about to come to an end.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE HILL FAMILY'S STORY

“It’s going to be – it’s a sad day because it’s, you know, parting of the families,” Hill says.

He’s concerned about the impact on his actual family, too. His wife Karen and his two kids in college all get health insurance through his job, but that’s going away. The coverage includes treatment for a condition that causes chronic pain and swelling in Karen's legs.

One part of that treatment is physical therapy.

“The other part of the treatment is … compression garments that have to be custom-fitted,” she says. “[They] cost $2,000 for a pair of either a capris-and-knee-highs combination or a pair of stockings.”

Karen says those garments have to be replaced every six months. She says her medical billing job does offer insurance, but it will not pay for the garments and she doesn’t know how much physical therapy it will cover.   

“If I don’t get treatment, I’m debilitated. I could become disabled,” Karen says. “So, I’m trying to avoid getting to a point where I can’t walk anymore or I’m in constant pain.

Her husband Lee says he’s working on directing as much of the family budget as possible to her healthcare.

“If we have to make adjustments, we’ll make adjustments,” he says, “because it’s something that she needs.”

She also needs to keep stress at bay, and her outlet is community theatre.

The sounds of rehearsal are drifting backstage at Breakthrough Theatre in Winter Park as Karen sits in the dressing room. “It’s a lot of fun and I get a lot of joy out of it,” she says. “I just hope I’m able to continue doing it.”

If she can't get treatment, she will have a hard time staying on her feet, let alone in costume. But in the meantime, she is trying to help her husband get on his feet.

“I think the hardest thing with this whole thing for me is watching him go through this,” Karen says. “You know, you don’t expect to have to start your life over, your career over, at 53.”

 Lee’s last day at work on the shuttle program is July 22nd.

 

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