A senior NASA planning

official predicted the

agency will spend at least $20 billion developing the Ares 5 heavy-lift rocket and Altair lunar lander that are instrumental to U.S. plans to put astronauts on the Moon by 2020.

Chris Shank, NASA’s director of strategic investments, told an industry group here March 19 that early spending on those two major programs should help reduce job losses at NASA’s

Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Fla., resulting from the planned 2010 retirement of the

labor-intensive space shuttle


Shank is the first NASA official to put such a specific price tag on Ares 5 and Altair development – at least publicly – and his remarks come as the agency prepares to send Congress a report showing that retiring the shuttle could leave as many as 3,500 to 4,000 contractors in the KSC region needing new jobs.

However, Shank said that projection, based on a survey of shuttle contractors, did not fully take into consideration the number of jobs likely to be created as KSC gears up for Ares 5 operations and takes on responsibility for integration of the lunar lander.

“Obviously the Ares 5 operations will be conducted out of Kennedy Space Center. But more importantly the integration of the lunar lander will be at KSC,” Shank told a luncheon hosted by the Space Transportation Association, an industry group representing rocket builders. “I’m not going to predict for you the number of people we are expecting – it’s procurement sensitive. You’ll be seeing a lot more from NASA on those procurements in the coming years ahead. But those are big deals.”

Shank was a last-minute substitute

speaker for KSC Director Bill Parsons, who was kept from the luncheon by airplane trouble in Orlando.

NASA’s 2009 budget request, sent to Congress in February, projects spending $2.5 billion on Ares 5 development through 2013, with the bulk of those dollars spent after the shuttle retires. NASA’s request does not include a separate budget request for the four-person Altair lander, but the agency does expect to build some hardware to test concepts in the next few years. NASA awarded $1.5 million worth of study contracts March 17 to five companies to independently evaluate the agency’s

in-house design concept for the lander.

The shuttle program employs roughly 14,000 contractors and civil servants at Kennedy and the surrounding area. NASA does not expect to need nearly as many people to operate the shuttle’s

successor, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 launcher. Those systems, which Shank said would cost about $7 billion each to develop, are due to enter service in March 2015, about four-and-a-half years after shuttle is expected to make its last flight.

Insulating Kennedy and the surrounding community from the kind of economic dislocation it suffered during the 1970s between the end of the Apollo program and the start of the shuttle era is one of NASA’s main political and programmatic challenges.

Some U.S. lawmakers, led by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), are advocating some combination of flying the shuttle beyond 2010 and putting more money into the development of Orion and commercial alternatives as a way to narrow, if not close, the looming gap in U.S. human spaceflight capability


NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has testified

this year that the agency and its contractors could deliver Orion and Ares by September 2013 if they were given $2 billion more spread over three years

than what the White House has been willing to request for the programs.

During two days of hearings in early March, members of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee hammered at what they say is a mismatch between

NASA’s funding needs and the White House budget request.


Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the panel’s chairman, introduced into the Congressional Record an internal NASA chart, entitled “Resources to Implement the Vision Have Eroded,” showing that NASA has had to absorb $11.7 billion in budget reductions and unanticipated expenses since U.S. President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004. Griffin acknowledged that his staff had prepared the chart to support budget deliberations with the White House, but said

the administration ultimately decided to accept the six-month delay for Orion and Ares disclosed last year rather than request

more funding

this year to move the debut back into 2014.

“The choice was made to accept the damage which was done,” Griffin said. As White House appointees, neither Griffin nor Shank are free to publicly criticize the administration’s budget decisions without fear of punishment.


of those in attendance at


luncheon where Shank spoke, however, were not shy about voicing frustration with NASA’s situation


One industry official complained that it is proving tough to convince lawmakers to support a NASA budget increase when the White House will not ask for it.

“We get pushback” because the administration is not asking for enough, this official said. “


need the administration to come up with a higher line.

We are trying to push the noodle up hill.”

Another attendee, a Republican congressional aide, lamented that that budgets appear to be driving U.S. space policy when it should be the other way around.

The aide’s assertion went unchallenged by the NASA official.

“You think I’m going to argue with you?” Shank asked.