Published: Jul 08, 2010 7:01 PM EDT
Updated: Jul 08, 2010 4:01 PM EDT

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The end of an era for Louisiana's role in
manned space flight arrived Thursday when the giant external fuel
tank for the final scheduled space shuttle plant rolled out of its
manufacturing plant.
      With the tank mounted on rollers and ready to be hauled to the
Mississippi River and a barge trip to Florida, about 1,000
employees gathered for a ceremony at NASA's Michoud Assembly with
many knowing their jobs will end this fall.
      "Working here has not just been a job, it's been a mission,"
said Terry Lee, 50, an associate production manager with 20 years
at Lockheed Martin Corp., the tank's contractor. "We've put our
hearts and souls into this. We're like a family. The astronauts are
part of our family."
      The latest tank is scheduled to propel the Endeavor into space
on Feb. 26 - the last shuttle mission unless Congress agrees to a
NASA's request to fund one more after that.
      The plant has built 134 shuttle tanks since Lockheed Martin won
the contract in 1973. Following several years of planning, design
and engineering, the first tank was delivered to NASA in 1979.
      At the height of the shuttle program, about 5,000 people were
employed building tanks. But after the Challenger disaster in 1986,
the shuttle program was slowed - and, along with it, the Lockheed
Martin payroll went into a steady decline.
      Lockheed Martin had 2,700 people on a $156 million annual
payroll in January 2008, a number that has dropped to about 1,000
now. In contrast to most of the New Orleans economy - with a median
annual income of about $27,000 - some of the space jobs pay in the
hundreds of thousands of dollars.
      Company spokesman Harry Wadsworth said four major layoffs
occurred in 2009, followed by layoffs on the final Friday of each
month in 2010. "Once the final tank comes through an area with a
skill, such as welders, their job has gone away," he said.
      There's been no mystery as to when a worker will be laid off:
Each employee has a departure date that can be planned for. Many
have been told that Sept. 30 is the dreaded day. With the national
economy still dragging, planning for the future is difficult.
      "I'm just going to wait and see what happens," said Tom
Melchionne, 56, a quality inspector for 29 years. "It may be early
retirement."
      But 47-year-old Debbie Kerr, who came to Michoud 30 years ago
right of high school, said she is headed to California with her
husband and his new job. Although she's a New Orleans native, she
said there is little chance of finding comparable employment in the
region.
      "I can't find a job around here doing what I'm doing and making
the money that I'm making," she said.
      There is one more tank yet to be finished - but it may never see
duty. A tank damaged during Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 is
being redone in case NASA gets one more shuttle flight. That tank
is scheduled for delivery in September.
      At one time, there was hope that the planned next phase of the
U.S. space program - Constellation, a plan to carry astronauts back
to the moon and perhaps to Mars - would replace at least a large
chunk of the shuttle jobs. But President Barack Obama has moved to
scrub that George W. Bush-era program, though it won't become
official until the next federal budget is passed. The program could
still be included in the upcoming spending plan.
      About 200 Lockheed Martin employees are working on the Orion
space capsule as part of Constellation, while a handful of Boeing
Co. employees are working on the proposed Ares I launch rocket
under NASA funding for the current budget year.
      Wadsworth said at least 500 employees would lose their jobs in
September. About 200 will be retained to support fuel tank
functions at Cape Canaveral until after the last mission.
      One of those workers with a bit more time is Dave Buras, 57, a
materials engineer who has been with the tank program since the
start. He said he's almost always on call and makes numerous trips
to Florida before each shuttle mission.
      "I've got so much time in, I'm looking forward to retiring,"
Buras said.