But others continue to bail out. Astronaut Pam Melroy, 49, veteran of three shuttle flights, saw the writing on the wall early on. She left NASA in August 2009 to become deputy program manager for Lockheed Martin's Orion space travel project.
"I felt like I needed to learn something that I didn't know how to do," she explains. "I had been working on Orion from the astronaut office, and I wanted to get closer to the program. I'm passionate about human space flight, so it made really good sense."
In early 2010, President Obama canceled a program meant to return humans to the moon and take them to Mars, and with it went the hardware to do the job, the Ares rocket booster and the Orion six-person crew capsule meant to launch sometime in the middle of the next decade. The government earmarked $15 million to help staff get additional training and search for new jobs.
But shortly after, Obama reinstated Orion as an escape vehicle for the International Space Station. "We're back in the game," she declares.
For the 350 employees under her, that comes as a relief.
Melroy is optimistic by nature — every astronaut exhales the quality like CO2. Starting a new career is "an opportunity for personal growth, maybe to do something you've always been passionate about. At our age, if you're passionate about something, you're more likely to be good at it," she says.
Take Leroy Chiao, 50 a veteran of four flights. "I worked for someone else my whole life," he says. "I wanted do my own thing." Chiao stuck close to what he knew best and joined Excalibur, a commercial space company. He also became a panel chairman at the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, a consultant and a speaker.
"The biggest difference is, every phone call I'm on is important. Now all the emails I receive are important," Chiao says. "Whenever you're doing your own thing, by definition you're always working."
Some shuttle astronauts left NASA even before the agency decided to abandon crewed space flight.
Tom Henricks, 57, retired in 1997 after his fourth shuttle mission. "I loved what I was doing," he says. "But I sat down facing my wife and three kids, and I said, 'Dad can stay with NASA and fly in space again or he can leave NASA, but that would most likely mean leaving Houston.' They all agreed that moving was better than flying. That's when it struck me that even as kids they knew how dangerous it is."
Henricks is now CEO of Henricks Enterprises Inc. and a consultant with Corporate Aviation Analysis & Planning Inc., in Dallas, Texas.