End of space shuttle program hits Utah hard

UTAH - For more than 30 years, NASA's space shuttle program has been a cornerstone of Utah's economy.

That era ended Friday with the launch of Atlantis, which ends the shuttle program.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports that it stops the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars that came to Utah from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for tests and construction of the solid-fuel rocket booster motors that launch the spacecraft into orbit.

Gone, too, are thousands of jobs from Alliant Tech Systems, known as ATK, and other northern Utah companies that supported the industry.

"I never thought they should end the shuttle program until there was a replacement for it," said Jake Garn, a one-time shuttle astronaut and former U.S. senator. "It has been a big boon to Utah, and I just hate to see the program come to an end."

On clear nights, Fred Perkins said he often looks up to see the International Space Station fly past. It represents a million tons of equipment that ATK's booster motors helped put into orbit.

"And you can watch it in the sky as if it were a new star," said Perkins chief shuttle engineer for the company which built the motor. "When I watch the space shuttle lifting off, it is overwhelming. I am in awe that human beings can actually come together and do that kind of work."

Some say the end of the shuttle program doesn't necessarily mean the future is all doom and gloom for Utah.

ATK will almost certainly be involved in the nation's future space-flight efforts, which virtually guarantees Utah will play a role — although the state may have to weather some tough times until NASA again sends astronauts into space aboard an American-made rocket.

Northern Utah's Box Elder County will certainly feel the pain. The county is the home of ATK's Promontory plant, where booster motors were assembled and tested.

"The economy in Box Elder County is going to be adjusting ... for some time to come," said John Matthews, a labor market economist at the Utah Department of Workforce Services who tracks northern Utah's workforce.

Unemployment in the county currently sits at 9.2 percent, much higher than the statewide rate of 7.3 percent. Much of the difference can be traced to the loss of thousands of workers let got from ATK since the wind-down of the shuttle program began in 2009.

"It has been really devastating for a lot of people around here," said Leon Payne, a 71-year-old Tremonton resident and ATK retiree who recently saw of his two brothers-in-law and a son let go from the rocket motor maker.

Payne, who started worked at ATK predecessor, Thiokol Corp., out of high school in 1958, says it's clear that what ATK needs going forward is new contracts.

"It was a good place to work, and it helped build me a home, buy a little property and raise three kids," said Payne who worked on the 1981 launch of the first shuttle before moving to the propellant program. "Those jobs helped put a lot of meals on a lot of tables. But I'm worried it could be a long time before we see those jobs return."

Former Tremonton Mayor Max Weese, who worked at Thiokol in the 1960s and 1970s, said even residents who didn't work at ATK's Promontory plant understood its importance. He's confident the jobs will return and that area residents will again hear the roar of rocket test firings from the hills west of the city.

"You could hear it and see the exhaust climbing into the sky," he said. "It would rattle windows, and sometimes there would be dust settling on the cars. But if they made a mess in your yard, you could always call them and they'd come out and clean it up." 

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