updated 7/28/2005 6:18:36 PM ET 2005-07-28T22:18:36

For NASA workers and contractors, the grounding of the space shuttle fleet dredged up familiar feelings — uncertainty about their jobs and determination to meet a daunting challenge.

“When you have a problem, you just fix it and if your first fix doesn’t work, you just keep on working until you fix it,” said Steve Agid, a former payload operations worker at the Kennedy Space Center.

Just two days earlier, tens of thousands of NASA workers and contractor employees around the nation cheered the space agency’s return to spaceflight after a frustrating 2½-year hiatus caused by the Columbia disaster which killed seven astronauts. But on Wednesday NASA grounded all future flights indefinitely because a large chunk of foam broke off Discovery’s external fuel tank in a hauntingly similar fashion to Columbia’s doomed flight.

“This is not uncommon for us to have to go through these setbacks,” said Jeff Rainey, business representative of the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers, which represents about a fifth of the 14,500 workers at the space center. “Space business isn’t easy. If it was, everybody would be doing it.”

No large layoffs occurred after the Columbia accident in 2003, and NASA officials refused to speculate if this week’s announcement would cause any cutbacks. But the specter of the thousands of space workers who were laid off after the Challenger explosion in 1986 haunt the memories of many employees, Rainey said.

“It’s way too early, but if ... it’s going to be a long period of time, there may be layoffs and cutbacks,” Rainey said.

Space center workers prepare the shuttles for each mission, operate each countdown and handle landings. They also prepare parts of the international space station.

Workers at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans also worried about losing their jobs since the plant is where the protective foam is applied to the external fuel tank. There were hundreds of layoffs at Michoud after the Challenger explosion, and 65 people were cut following the Columbia disaster.

“It’s very depressing. We’re concerned about our jobs, our livelihoods,” said Mike Berger, an inspector for the foam application process who’s worked at the plant since 1980.

Dwaine Payne, a Michoud welder, said he was laid off for more than seven years after Challenger’s demise and now hopes that he’ll be able to work for another five years — long enough so he can retire at age 55 with health insurance coverage from his employer, Lockheed Martin.

“I’m very much concerned,” Payne said. “If they ground the shuttle program, we’re going to lose a lot of people.”

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