Shuttle's elevator crew ponders uncertain future

Shuttle elevator workers
Jose Chang and Brian Jones repair the elevator that gets astronauts into the space shuttle. They will be losing their jobs July 22, 2011 as the manned space flight program winds down.

At its peak 32,000 Americans worked for the space shuttle program. Now only 6,300 remain -- and most of them will lose their jobs with the end of the Atlantis mission.

CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley visited the Kennedy Space Center to talk to some of the unsung heroes of the program -- such as the guys in the elevator repair shop, who have a lot of pride in their very own claim to fame.

It's Brian Jones who gets the astronauts off the ground. He operates what may be the world's most famous elevator, delivering the crew to the shuttle hatch 20 stories up.

"We deliver the astronauts the first 195 feet into space," Jones joked.

So what happens after the last shuttle goes?

"We've all received layoff notices for July 22," Jones said. "So we're all currently out..." The chorus chimed in: "Looking for jobs."

Jeff Cunningham, Charles Flake and Jose Chang work in the elevator shop for United Space Alliance, the private company that manages shuttle support for NASA. The elevator men are among nearly 3,000 space workers all across the country who will be laid off at the end of this mission. More than 1,000 have already lost their jobs this year as the shuttle program winds down.

"The sad part is not losing my job, but the saddest part is leaving space program," Jones said. "Because I think I can honestly say -- speak for all of us -- it's a pride thing for all of us."

"It's an awesome experience working that close to something that takes seven people up into space and a payload along with it -- and just being a part of something way bigger than yourself," said Flake.

As for the job market for the elevator crew, Chang says there's a lot of competition and the available jobs don't pay nearly as well as their current ones.

"I think that's the reality of that -- fewer jobs, less money-- so it's scary out there right now," he said.

Look around Brevard County, Fla. near the Kennedy Space Center and you can see just how devastating the end of the shuttle program is to the community. A bar called Shuttles has been a fixture for astronauts and space workers for 30 years. But owner Bill Grillo is worried. Business is off 50 percent. He had 25 employees; now he's down to eight.

"It's kinda getting punched in the stomach and then getting kicked after you're laying on the ground," Grillo said. "It's a double whammy for us. The country's hurting with the recession. We're hurting twice as much because we get so many local layoffs."

Brian Jones' grandfather worked to build the shuttle launch pads. His father helped construct the shuttle assembly building.

But this third generation space worker and his wife, Missy, may have to leave Florida. She lost her job as an office manager a few months ago.

But they'll be watching as Atlantis arcs into the sky one last time. The feeling?

"Satisfaction that we flew the last shuttle out successfully. Sadness that it's the last shuttle. Nervous what's happening next," Jones said. "But overall, I think joy and that we did a job well done and pride in the work that we did."

  • Scott Pelley
    Scott Pelley

    Correspondent, "60 Minutes"