CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Kennedy Space Center workers in Florida celebrated and mourned the final space shuttle landing Thursday.
They were thrilled with the success of the last mission, which ended with Atlantis touching down before dawn at the Florida landing strip. But they also traded goodbye hugs and took souvenir photos of their colleagues, knowing some of them won't be returning next week.
The latest round of pink slips — cutting between 1,500 and 1,800 in Florida — with the shuttle program's end, takes place Friday. Two thousand more are expected in coming months.
Close to 9,500 contract workers in total will have been laid off nationwide from the shuttle program's demise.
Angie Buffaloe shed tears earlier in the day with three colleagues who are losing their posts in her engineering office.
"I spend more time with these guys than I do with my family," said Buffaloe, a 22-year space center veteran. "We've been through everything: divorce, sick children, grandchildren. They've been there. We've shared life together ... and now their last day is today."
The layoffs involve everyone from high-ranking managers to janitorial staff. Many of the laid-off workers had spent their entire careers at the Kennedy Space Center and were inspired as children to work at the home of the moonshot launches from the Apollo era and the place that has hosted every shuttle liftoff in the past 30 years.
"For me the shuttle is my life, and it's very sad for me to see that part of my life end," said Glen Longwood, who has worked at shuttle emergency landing sites overseas. Longwood said he hopes to find another job within NASA, where he has spent his entire 18-year career, but he is looking at other jobs around the country.
"I'm looking for the next adventure," he said. "It's a bridge I have to cross but I'm not sure what's on the other side."
Hundreds of other soon-to-be-laid-off employees gathered with their co-workers over hot dogs, Popsicles, and ice scream sandwiches at a thank-you gathering NASA held outside Atlantis' hangar. The space shuttle was parked out front, offering a final close-up view of the vehicle they had worked on for years.
Tony Robertson, who works on the maintenance team that cleans the launch pad, cracked jokes with co-workers over hot dogs. His job was ending Friday. Nearby, others signed a banner that read, "We Made History! Welcome Home Atlantis."
"It's a sad day," Robertson said. "It's sad that the program is done, but I'm going to go home, relax and cut the grass."
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the agency will try to bring back laid-off shuttle workers to help on private-sector spaceflight ventures or for NASA's efforts to build a vehicle for an eventual mission to an asteroid or Mars. NASA has yet to settle on a rocket design to get astronauts there.
Shuttle workers should "stick their chests out proudly to say they were a part of the most incredible era in American spaceflight," Bolden said.
For those workers sticking around, there will be old business to wrap up and new skills to learn. Test director Michael Ciannilli, who has worked for 15 years on launch countdowns and landing operations will prepare the three shuttles for museum at Cape Canaveral, Los Angeles and suburban Washington and decommission buildings that had been used for the shuttle.
"I would love to stay with NASA," said Ciannilli, 43. "I could never imagine doing anything else in my entire life besides this."
Even for those workers who still have jobs, the future is uncertain, given that there is no formal program to succeed the shuttle.
"To think that for 50 years, we've had the next to step to go to," Buffaloe said. "The first time in the United States space program that we don't have anything to go to, that's tragic."