After 30 years the Space Shuttle Program has ended. I have been lucky enough to be part of this program since 1982, working at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans East. The huge External Fuel Tank (ET) was manufactured here. The ET was the only component of the Shuttle Transportation System that was not reusable.
Last July the employees at Michoud attended the rollout of the last Tank. This is the same tank that was used for the final Shuttle Launch on July 8, 2011. (It is a strange coincedence that the rollout ceremony was July 8, 2010.) In true New Orleans fashion, a second line was held to escort the Tank onto the barge that would transport it to KSC (Kennedy Space Center). Here’s a video of the event.
As I write this and watch the video I feel a lump in my throat. The experience of working at Michoud has been very, very special. I don’t know about other companies, but working at MAF we employees feel like family. I’ve known some people for the “almost 30 years” I’ve worked there. We have grown old together, celebrated each others life milestones: marriage, children, divorce, death, grandchildren, retirement, Katrina (more than 50% of the MAF workforce lost everything from the storm),the Saints as Superbowl Champs and the BP Oilspill (the blowout preventer is still at MAF, under investigation). The number of employees at MAF has decreased to a few hundred from an all time high of about 2,500 in the heyday of the Shuttle Program. Several employees have set up webpages with archived photos of our work and play while at MAF. There is a facebook page for former employees to keep in touch. The end of the Shuttle program means so much more than jobs lost.
At MAF we employees would gather around the closed circuit televisions across the facility and watch each launch that took place during work hours. We knew each milestone in the ascent, marvelling every time the capcom would report on the speed of the bird. We knew that our Tank must work flawlessly for eight minutes before it was jettisoned off the orbiter. And the Tank worked every time! Each employee, no matter what their job was, took pride in our work.
We felt much pain in the losses of Challenger and Columbia. I still cannot look at photographs or videos of those two events. Our technical and production crews worked around the clock after those incidents to make things right. And they did. Space exploration has never been and will never be a flawless endeavour. It is an inherently dangerous science.
We will not cry because it is over, we will rejoice because it happened and we had a part in it!