HOUSTON --The countdown to NASA's final shuttle flight is on and thunderstorms continue to threaten to delay the historic launch. This lightning bolt struck a bit too close to the shuttle for comfort on Thursday. NASA is checking for any signs of damage to Atlantis or the launch pad. The forecast is still not looking good. There's a 70 percent chance bad weather could keep the shuttle grounded on Friday. For now, crews are pressing forward with launch preparations. But for the thousands of people who have made the space shuttle program a 30-year success, they are now looking at the end of their jobs. Al Branscomb was graduating from the University of Alabama in 1962 when the Western Union Telegram man knocked on his door. "A challenging assignment awaits you. This member of the astronaut team to assist in manned space exploration," said Branscomb. A few days later he pulled up to Cape Canaveral, started work, and eight days after that, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. A few days later President John F. Kennedy came to meet Glenn in Florida and Branscomb was there too. "I was so awed, I shook his hand and I think he might have said, 'Congratulations,'" Branscomb said. Not bad for a guy 11 days out of college. But for 'Big Al' as they called him, it was just beginning. The "Right Stuff" guy's known for fast flying and great parties were his colleagues back then. "Some of the parties on Cocoa Beach were pretty fantastic," he said. And while at work, they were making it up as they went. "You assume authority and were given authority and did things that you didn't know how to do," Branscomb said. Over the years, Branscomb had a role in every big NASA program -- Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and on to the shuttles -- eventually supervising the assembly, delivery and first 13 flights of shuttle Atlantis. "You feel the vibration, the sound waves, your pants legs are vibrating, guts are rumbling around. It's an awesome experience," he said. He won't be there for Atlantis' last launch. He said he doesn't want to fight the crowds. But for a guy who helped build the machine, it may just be too much. His last assignment with NASA has been to get the shuttles ready to hang in museums. "It's still a beautiful vehicle and I personally hate to see them being put on display," he said. As the shuttle ends, so does Big Al's career. A telegram started it nearly 50 years ago. A layoff letter a few weeks ago brought it to an end. "In 49 years and six months, this is the first time I've been laid off. So I've not missed a paycheck since February 12, 1962," he said. In all that time, Branscomb and NASA always went from one program to the next. A good rocket to a better one. Now as he retires, the shuttle is grounded and Americans don't have another option ready to go. Big Al will be at home -- and most American astronauts will be too. "I feel like I've been a part of this from almost the very beginning to the end of an era. How much better can it get than that?" he said. Branscomb is one of thousands of NASA contractors losing jobs. At one point, the shuttle program had as many as 30,000 people working to make it happen. Now there are just 6,000. And by the end of September, that number will be down to around 1,000.
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