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A year after Space Shuttle's final flight, workers still struggle (+video)

A year after the final flight of the Atlantis marked the end of NASA's Space Shuttle program, thousands of engineers and other workers who helped make the program possible are still looking for decent work. 

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Private-sector companies, such as Paypal founder Elon Musk's Space X, are starting unmanned launches from Kennedy SpaceCenter, but their need for workers doesn't come close to what was required for the shuttle program.

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"We expected a little more action from our government, at least in figuring out what direction we're going to go in," said Harrington, 55, who worked on the shuttles' thermal protection system earning about $80,000 a year. "Ultimately, that would inform which direction we would go in. A lot of us thought, since we have such deep roots in the community, we could wait it out. It was hopeful at first. Now it isn't so hopeful. Things aren't moving fast."

Many of the former space workers find camaraderie and job tips each Friday at the weekly breakfast of the Spacecoast Technical Network, a group created by former Kennedy Space Center workers. Just hours before 70 members dined on eggs, biscuits and coffee at a recent meeting, three Chinese astronauts parachuted back to Earth in a capsule halfway around the world. For the space workers, it was yet another sign of the growing competition facing the United States as a leader of spaceexploration. At the moment, the United States has no way of sending astronauts to space in its own vehicles, and NASA is relying on the Soviet-made Soyuz capsules to send U.S. astronauts to the international space station.

One of the network's founders, Bill Bender, recently joined more than two dozen other colleagues working on a reconnaissance project for a contractor in Afghanistan where they are earning six-figure annual incomes.

Bender had been out of work for about a year from his job on the cancelled Constellation program when he took the one-year contract to work halfway around the world.

"As the months passed, I began to realize the hard reality that things I had known and taken for granted no longer existed. Stable work, good pay, benefits, etc. were no longer a reasonable expectation," Bender wrote in a recent email from Afghanistan. "As time went by and it was getting closer to a year without a job ... the (Afghan) opportunity looked better and better. The money was very good due to compensation for hardship and danger."

Those who have remained on the Space Coast without jobs are cutting back on small luxuries. Harrington has trimmed back on eating out and vacations.

Al Schmidt, who worked 27 years at the space center, has cut back on using his car and utilities at home to save money. The 60-year-old's unemployment benefits are running out soon, and without a new U.S. space program offering ready-to-go jobs, he is contemplating retirement, something he doesn't want to do.

"I live day to day. I can't afford new cars or lots of groceries," Schmidt said. "From where I sit, there is nothing coming online soon enough to resolve my problem."

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Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter. 

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