Managing the U.S. space shuttle fleet had been the Johnson Space Center’s bread and butter for at least 30 years. In the 20 months since the final space shuttle mission returned to Earth, the Houston-based NASA manned spaceflight center’s headcount and budget have both diminished.

Johnson’s civil service work force, at 3,150 employees, is down 4.5 percent from 2011 levels and is expected to continue shrinking by about 50 people a year for at least the next couple of years. Contractor layoffs number in the thousands. The field center’s budget, at nearly $5 billion, is $1 billion smaller than it was during the final year of shuttle operations.

Ellen Ochoa, a veteran of four space shuttle flights who in 1993 became the first Latina to go to space, spent five years as Johnson’s deputy director before taking the top job at the end of December.

While NASA’s three space-flown shuttles have all been carted off to museums, the international space station (ISS) — which is flown from Johnson’s Mission Control Center — is still up and operating through at least 2020. Johnson is also in charge of developing the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and still serves as home base for the agency’s roughly 50 active astronauts.

Johnson, unlike  Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, did not find itself with a sudden surplus of expensive, special-purpose infrastructure when the shuttle program ended. Neither has it found itself with a surplus of new development projects to fill the vacuum left by the shuttle’s retirement.

Johnson’s biggest development effort, Orion, is now scheduled to make its first test flight to Earth orbit in 2014 before it is refurbished for lunar sojourns in 2017 and 2021. NASA envisions launching one Orion mission every two years after that. Not long after European Space Agency officials visited the Johnson Space Center in January to formalize their Orion contribution — a service module derived from Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle — Ochoa spoke with SpaceNews staff writer Dan Leone.

The Kennedy Space Center is looking to lease a lot of its idled infrastructure to the private sector, or other government agencies. Is anything similar going on at Johnson?

We’re in a very different situation from Kennedy. They focus particularly on launch. At the moment, nobody’s launching there. We, on the other hand, didn’t have a lot of facilities that we just dedicated to shuttle that now don’t have any use. But what we do have are facilities that aren’t used as much, and we are looking for partnerships where we can do cost sharing.

One of the best examples I can give you is the Neutral Buoyancy Lab here: a 60-meter-by-30-meter pool that’s about 12 meters deep. It was used all throughout the ISS assembly time period for spacewalking training. We still need it now; it’s still a critical facility that supports astronaut training for maintenance repair tasks outside ISS. The ISS program is the one that pays for that facility and for the particular people with the skills to run it, but we don’t use the pool nearly as much as we used to. So we looked for partners, and we were helped by Raytheon Technical Services, the contractor team who runs the neutral buoyancy lab for us. Raytheon helped find a really interesting partner: Petrofac Training Services. They support the offshore oil industry, and one of the things they provide is emergency training for offshore workers. They want to do emergency drills where people might be in a helicopter going out to a rig, but the helicopter has to dunk in the ocean. They want to provide training in our pool for how you would get out of that.

When did that start?

About six months ago. From everything I’ve heard, interest is building, based on the work Petrofac has been doing out there.

ISS is the biggest program at Johnson. Now that construction is complete, what’s your focus?

The ISS program office has done a reorganization where there is more of a focus on utilization throughout that office as well throughout Johnson. In the station utilization phase, there are three main areas: fundamental discovery science, using ISS as a testbed for exploration, and research and development in areas that have more direct applicability to people here on Earth. In the last area, for example, we’ve learned more about how bacteria behave in a microgravity environment. You’ve probably read about how we took up salmonella to the space station. It turns out salmonella gets more virulent in microgravity, and we’re able to determine some things about which genes in the bacteria were turning on and off. That allows you to then get some clues about how you might go about developing a vaccine. And there’s a company that’s working on that right now.

Last summer, NASA human spaceflight boss William Gerstenmaier told the Senate Commerce Committee that via the Commercial Crew Program, ISS might be able to support a seven-member crew. Is Johnson’s ISS office actively planning for a crew of seven?

As the Commercial Crew Program proceeds and we get a better idea of when the capability is available, taking up four people from a U.S. launch site with a commercial crew vehicle rather than three at a time on each Soyuz flight, we would certainly like to take advantage of it.

How do you prioritize space station utilization, given that the program could end as soon as 2020?

We are looking at things that are ready to go, things that we know we can get up in the next few years, particularly where we feel we need to use ISS as a testbed for exploration beyond Earth. There’s now an agreement with Bigelow Aerospace to take their inflatable Bigelow Expandable Activity Module to the space station in 2015. When that goes up, we’ll be able to understand how the radiation environment and the temperature swings inside that inflatable module compare with the traditional aluminum modules.

Does Johnson want to see the station fly beyond 2020?

That’s more of a headquarters question that would get worked by Bill Gerstenmaier’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. Certainly our international partners on the space station are interested in seeing it go beyond 2020. And I think as we get more and more into the different areas of science that you can accomplish on ISS, there will be more advocacy for keeping it around as a laboratory.

Any chance there will be additions to ISS besides Bigelow’s small cargo module?

The Russians still have another module they’re going to add to the space station: the Multipurpose Laboratory Module. The Bigelow thing is more of an exploration-technology demonstration than a new module.

After ISS, which program is next in the pecking order at Johnson?

The next-biggest program after ISS would be the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle developmental program. That’s the other major thing we’re working.

What’s the Orion team at Johnson working on now?

Their big milestone is the Exploration Flight Test-1 in 2014. EFT-1, as we call it. That’s the main focus of the Orion program. The crew module is being built up in Florida at Kennedy right now, and there are various places around the country where parts are coming from. We also have an agreement where the European Space Agency (ESA) will provide the service module for Exploration Mission-1, the one in 2017 where Orion and the Space Launch System will fly together for the first time.

Have any ESA personnel been detailed to Johnson to support the service module work?

No, they’re doing development over in Europe. There’s a lot of interaction with them about requirements and interfaces and that kind of thing. Glenn Research Center in Cleveland is actually the center that’s responsible for the Orion service module on the NASA side, so their folks have been interacting with ESA experts as well as people at Johnson.

How many civil servants work at Johnson?

For fiscal year 2013 we’re going to be at about 3,150 civil servants, which is down from about 3,300 from fiscal year 2011. The targets that we’ve been given are to come down about 50 people a year over the next couple of years after that.

Were those 150 civil servant jobs mainly shuttle jobs?

Yes, primarily.

Do you still have a shuttle program office at Johnson?

There’s a handful of people, fewer than 10 working shuttle transition and retirement, and they’ll be closing out by the end of the fiscal year.

What’s Johnson’s budget for 2013?

This year we don’t have a final budget, but the planning is for a little under $4.5 billion. We’re doing, more or less, the same work as in 2012. That year we had $5 billion. The $500 million reduction in 2013 primarily reflects the fact that we had this one big shuttle program pension payment in 2012. In 2011, we had about a $6 billion budget.

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...