PARIS and WASHINGTON — Boeing will be laying off some 800 employees this summer unless NASA immediately agrees to incorporate the company’s work on the canceled Ares rocket program into the agency’s planned heavy-lift rocket mandated by Congress, the head of Boeing’s space exploration division said March 31.

In a briefing with reporters, Brewster Shaw said most of the Boeing work force currently assigned to the U.S. space shuttle, plus those who have been working on the now-canceled Ares 1 rocket upper stage, have nowhere to go within the company other than to NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS).

Waiting for NASA to send out and evaluate bid requests for the work as part of a competitive procurement would take months, if not more than a year, Shaw said — too long for Boeing to maintain the staff now working on the shuttle and the expiring Ares 1 contracts.

If the last space shuttle is launched in June as planned, Shaw said, Boeing would begin dismissing shuttle workers in July. If these engineers cannot transition into a new NASA heavy-lift launcher program, or find work in NASA’s Commercial Crew Development project, “then we will lose that work force,” Shaw said. “They will be laid off. If NASA does a competitive procurement, then it is inevitable.”

In January NASA issued a preliminary report to Congress outlining a design for a space-shuttle-derived heavy-lift launcher as directed in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. However, the agency is assessing alternative designs for the SLS and does not expect to settle on a final architecture until the end of June.

In the meantime, NASA continues to evaluate potential acquisition strategies for the new launch vehicle.

“Given that the current [heavy-lift vehicle design] utilizes heritage systems from shuttle and Ares, NASA is evaluating existing Ares and shuttle contracts — and potential money-saving improvements and modifications to them — to determine whether those contracts could be used for development work on the SLS and whether doing so would be the most affordable and efficient option for developing the SLS,” Doug Cooke, associate administrator for NASA’s exploration systems, said in prepared testimony before the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee March 30.

However, Boeing could get at least a partial reprieve the week of April 4 when NASA is expected to announce the winners of a second round of Commercial Crew Development contracts worth a combined $270 million, according to one industry source. The company won $18 million in economic stimulus money from NASA last year to continue work on technologies for a seven-person crew capsule it is developing in collaboration with Bigelow Aerospace to launch atop any rocket.

Shaw said a report by the NASA inspector general concluding that Boeing’s Ares 1 cryogenic upper stage could not easily be modified to serve the agency’s planned heavy-lift rocket is inaccurate, perhaps because the report’s authors never saw fit to consult with Boeing. “They didn’t ask us for our input,” Shaw said.



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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.