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Sundial

Sundial Now: The triumphs and tragedies of Florida's remarkable space shuttle era

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WLRN
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When We Were Shuttle is a feature-length documentary exploring the Space Shuttle Program through the eyes of some of the exceptional men and women who worked behind-the-scenes to make it fly.

NASA’s space shuttle program may have ended in 2011, but it left a permanent imprint on everyday life, from the clothes we wear to the food on our table.

For the thousands of people who worked behind the scenes, some for over 30 years, it left much more: camaraderie, success, family — and a lot of heartache.

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WLRN's new documentary "When We Were Shuttle," tells the story of the highs and lows of the program, through the people who made it happen. It looks at both the incredible science and the untold personal stories of a community that was created to push the American Dream further into space.

Zachary Weil is the director and producer behind the film, which premiere's on WLRN-TV on Tuesday, Nov. 15th at 8 p.m. He joined Sundial Now to talk about the stories he collected of the people that made the Space Coast what we know it as today.

The space shuttle program, which began in 1972, created the first reusable spacecraft in the world. The shuttle would land on a runway, like a commercial airplane — unlike the Apollo crafts that preceded it, which would parachute into the ocean after reentering Earth’s atmosphere.

The goal was to make space flights cheaper and more routine, getting people to and from the international space station within weeks. It fell far short of that goal. Still, it launched 135 missions in nearly 40 years, before it was discontinued in 2011.

It was crucial in building the International Space Station, where experiments led to a multitude of usages back on earth, like farming and clothes designed for extreme weather or sports.

Space shuttle Endeavour, STS-134, blasts off, Monday, May 16, 2011, on its historic 25th and final flight from the Kennedy Space Center. (Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/MCT) ORG XMIT: 1105476
Space shuttle Endeavour, STS-134, blasts off, Monday, May 16, 2011, on its historic 25th and final flight from the Kennedy Space Center. (Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/MCT) ORG XMIT: 1105476

“Even now, when you look at the space station, the average person has no idea about the benefits being derived from the station being up there and the research going on. And that’s sad,” said Arthur Edwards, a project manager on the shuttle program.

He added that if people understood more about the research and impact that comes out of space exploration there would be more public acceptance of the costs and risks that will come with it.

But the film doesn’t center around the astronauts or top-level NASA officials. Instead, it centers the people who “had their hands on the vehicle” — the tens of thousands of workers who built the shuttles and kept the operations moving at Kennedy Space Center in the Space Coast of Florida.

“One of the really interesting things about the program is that even though it flew from the early 80s up until 2011, this was actually a machine and a technology that was being proposed as early as the 1970s. So a lot of the people that ended up working on Shuttle were employees of the program in one way or the other for 30 to 40 years,” said Zachary Weil, the director and producer of the film.

Many remember the tragic accidents that tainted the program’s legacy. Two shuttle missions failed––in 1986, the Challenger disintegrated just over a minute after lift off. In 2003, Columbia broke up on re-entry, minutes before its expected landing. Fourteen astronauts were killed in total.

“That affected the workforce incredibly, deeply. And I think it still does. I think to this day, if you were to ask some of these individuals about that, some of them can't even talk about it still,” said Weil. “These were people that knew the astronauts, worked with them every day, had their hands on the vehicle, getting it ready for flight. So I think they take the highs and the lows very personally.”

It also dives into the discriminatory culture within NASA and the Shuttle program against African Americans and other minorities. Some of those affected spoke up, but their concerns either weren’t taken seriously or addressed with enough urgency.

There were additional issues over the working conditions of staff, including safety and being overworked to meet the pressure from top-level management to complete more frequent missions.

The International Space Station is seen from NASA space shuttle Endeavour after the station and shuttle began their post-undocking relative separation in space on May 29, 2011.
NASA
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Getty Images
The International Space Station is seen from NASA space shuttle Endeavour after the station and shuttle began their post-undocking relative separation in space on May 29, 2011.

“There were a lot of things that were going wrong in that regard. People working two or three shifts back-to-back, getting pressure from management to get that vehicle ready for flight,” said Weil.

“You have people at the very top saying 50 to 60 flights and the best that they're doing is nine flights a year. I think that that says something about the vehicle and maybe some problems with expectation.”

This culture of silence and dangerous ambition played a role in those fatal accidents, which ultimately led to the program being discontinued. The end of the Space Shuttle program affected the lives of those workers, their families and the community.

“What surprised me the most was just how different the end result was for some of these individuals. Some of the NASA folks that we spoke to had worked in mid-level management or had worked their way up through the ranks over the course of their time with Shuttle. When it came time for the program to end, they were relatively okay,” he said.

“There's a gentleman in particular in the documentary who has a very difficult time when Shuttle comes to an end. He was 18 years old when the program started. He came into the program right out of community college there in Brevard County. When that job went away, his skill set just was not applicable to many other positions in the community. So I think there's a duality there,” he added.

He’s talking about Travis Thompson, who was the Orbiter Vehicle Closeout Chief.

The film opens with Thompson walking through his three-acre property in Florida to reach the trailer where he now lives. He said he used to have a house on the Saint Johns River, but lost it all.

“I’m in the woods. It’s what I’m left with,” said Thompson in the documentary. He now volunteers at the American Space Museum, which is not affiliated with NASA, because he’s found that there are people who want to learn about his work on the Shuttle program.

Weil told Sundial Now that something that isn’t addressed in the film is the workers’ fear that newer, private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin do not have the decades of experience and knowledge that the Shuttle program’s workforce did.

“As wonderful as this new technology is, like SpaceX, they have not had an accident. They have not lost lives. I would agree that individuals like Musk and Bezos should pay attention to this knowledge and listen to these folks because they know what they're talking about. They lived it.”

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Leslie Ovalle Atkinson is the lead producer behind WLRN's daily magazine program, Sundial. She previously produced Morning Edition newscasts at WLRN and anchored the midday news. As a multimedia producer, she also works on visual and digital storytelling.
Elisa Baena is a fall 2021 intern at WLRN News.