- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 20, 2011

HOUSTON (AP) - In the geeky world of space engineering, this large, high-ceilinged room is close to holy. Inside, people speak in hushed tones and observe time-honored traditions.

The place is Mission Control. Beginning moments after launch, flight controllers here choreograph everything astronauts do, from waking up and eating to walking in space.

“That building, we think of it as a cathedral of spaceflight,” said John McCullough, head of NASA’s flight director office. Flight controllers are “the keepers and enforcers of traditions” that date back to the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo days.

“You just feel the ghosts when you are in that room,” McCullough said.

When Atlantis lands Thursday, the famous room will seem even more ghostly. After 30 years and 135 missions, shuttles will no longer need controlling. NASA plans to turn the space into a training venue, mostly for astronauts going to the International Space Station and flight controllers working with the station.

Over the next couple of months, 800 or 900 people in the mission operations division will be laid off, said Paul Hill, head of that division and a former flight director himself.

“As proud as we are of our success … I have to keep that in perspective with the 90 percent of the workforce that will no longer be part of that effort,” Hill said.

Kwatsi Alibaruho, flight director for this final mission, said the specter of so many flight controllers without jobs is “kind of following us through the halls.”

Laura Slovey, a 29-year-old flight controller for contractor United Space Alliance, worked Atlantis’ launch and will handle mechanical issues for landing. She got her pink slip, but then it was retracted. Once Atlantis lands, instead of trying to solve last-minute problems like a stuck shuttle latch, she’ll be working on a new docking system for the space station.

Some of Slovey’s colleagues also will move to Mission Control for the space station, which operates in a separate room in the same building. It’s a slower pace than controlling the highly choreographed shuttle missions.

The original Mission Control of the Apollo era with its bulky green computer terminals is in another part of the building and is a national historic landmark. The current Mission Control is a special shuttle-oriented control room built 16 years ago to supervise the last 65 missions. When it was unveiled, with its dark blue consoles, giant wall-sized video screen in front and fake ferns in the back, it was lauded for its modern “Star Trek” look.

It is the center of the space world.

“We make the decisions. We make the missions happen,” Alibaruho said. “This is a special room.”

John Muratore, a former flight controller instrumental in designing the room, laughed when asked about the church-like feel.

“It’s not different than a surgical operating room or the command deck of an aircraft carrier,” said Muratore, now a professor at the University of Tennessee. “When you take people’s lives in your hands, it’s a serious business. It’s a serious responsibility. And we do it in full public view.”

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