As a musician, you’d probably think my heroes would be the musicians who inspire me. While I give them credit for making me the artist that I am, my musical heroes tend to be more the technical and business people who created the ability for me to be a truly independent artist. The engineers at ProTools and the wizards behind Audacity, for example, especially the latter, since they do it in an open-source way that gives me the ability to record a demo on my laptop wherever I may be without spending a dime. This is important since I’m a classic example of struggling artist, especially since I’m still sort of a newbie at being on this side of the microphone. Then there are the people at Bandcamp, Tunecore, and Reverbnation who create the opportunities for us independents to have many of the marketing advantages of major players in the industry. These people have enabled an outright revolution that is making the world of music a far better place. Despite my lack of love for major labels I also admire the people who do the real work of getting their music out, the assistants and “little people” who go about their duties with passion and vigor without getting any of the credit or even a big enough paycheck to live in the cities they have to live in to do their work or usually even a simple, “Thank you.” I was one of them once, and it’s the hardest work in the industry. Makes being a musician feel like a piece of cake even when I’m working 16 hour days or exhausted from traveling and promoting myself.

As a space geek, you’d probably think my heroes are astronauts. Don’t get me wrong, I admire them beyond measure, but the real heroes are the people who toil endlessly to get people, satellites, and robots off this planet. You may never know their names but you benefit from what they do every single day of your life. In the next few weeks many of them (those in the shuttle program, of course) will be out of work and they’ve known this was coming for months and years yet continued to put their best efforts in and show pride in what they do. Whether writing software, training astronauts, interpreting data into something usable, designing systems, building, or any of the million duties that are required for success, every single one of them is an imperative piece to the giant puzzle that is spaceflight.

Watching people I admire, even love in many cases, lose their dream jobs and do it with a smile and gratitude they even got to be a part of this for awhile has completely changed my perspective on heroes. Sure, there is bitterness as well, but the grace with which most are accepting their fates is something beyond admirable. Some of them will never be able to sell their houses and move where jobs are available. Some of them will lose everything they’ve worked for all these years, serving the American public in a concrete way politicians could never understand. I have never seen so many houses for sale that will probably not find a buyer as on the Space Coast. It’s easy to look at numbers and dismiss them, after all, what’s thousands of jobs lost in an economy that has lost millions of them? Getting to spend a lot of time in an area that likely won’t recover anytime soon, no matter what the national economy does, provides insight into how disjointed America can be. We are not just two nations occupying the same plot of land as some would say, we are thousands of micro-societies with unique problems and things to contribute to the whole.

When the shuttle lands tomorrow an era that has been an integral part of any greatness America can claim to have will be over. No matter how quickly we can get new programs going the end of this era will also signal an end to a community of the best and brightest we have produced as a nation. They span the nation, most obviously in Florida and Texas but also in hundreds of towns you would never think of as being enhanced by the shuttle program. Some will move into different areas of space work, others will have to move into fields they have never wanted to be part of because there just isn’t enough room for them in a scaled-down space industry. Their training as NASA or NASA contractor employees is incredibly valuable to many industries but many of those industries are ones that simply don’t contribute to our society in the ways that truly matter. I wish we could keep them working for the greater good instead of helping to line the pockets of the already-wealthy. Even worse, they will no longer be working as a team.

Do I think NASA should be a jobs program? No. Is there bloat and waste in the agency? Absolutely. However, the way to fix that is not to push out the very people who can take us to greater heights as a community, a nation, and even the global community of humans. As citizens of one of the few nations with the resources to embark upon these grand adventures in science and exploration we are responsible to be angry on the behalf of heroes.

But first, just find yourself a shuttle worker today and say a heartfelt, “Thank you.” A small gesture, to be sure, but one they could use a whole lot more of.

This was first posted on my blog at http://craftlass.wordpress.com/2011/07/20/heroes/ but it really belongs here, for all the Space Tweeps.