— NASA’s top five contractors involved in the space shuttle program would be forced to lay off as many as 10,000 employees unless the
space agency bumps up its schedule to begin work on the Ares 5 rocket and Altair lunar lander, a Boeing executive said March 31.

NASA is currently collecting study proposals for the rocket and spacecraft planned to return
astronauts to the Moon by 2020. Study contracts are expected to be awarded this summer, but hardware contracts are not planned until 2012.

Brewster Shaw, vice president of Boeing’s NASA Systems unit, said he and contractors Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md., AlliantTechsystems of Minneapolis, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, Calif., and the United Space Alliance of Houston are seeking support on Capitol Hill for awarding the Ares 5 and Altair contracts two years ahead of the current schedule to avoid massive layoffs.

“Between the five of us, when shuttle stops flying we’ll be laying off somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 people if these procurements for the follow-on Constellation elements don’t get accelerated,” Shaw said at the National Space Symposium here. “So when we go to the Hill, we talk to the people in Congress about the importance of accelerating those procurements from 2012, which is roughly where they sit now, into

NASA and its contractors are beginning to wind down their space shuttle operations in preparation for the shuttle’s planned 2010 retirement. Under NASA’s Constellation program, the Ares 1 rocket and Orion crew capsule will replace the space shuttle for missions to the international space station and will be used in conjunction with the heavy-lift Ares 5 and the Altair lander for Moon missions. The plan is predicated on phasing out the space shuttle and shifting its approximately $3 billion annual budget to work on the Constellation program.

The program schedule, however, has slipped since former U.S. President George W. Bush first announced it as part of his Vision for Space Exploration in 2004 primarily because funding has not materialized as promised.

With a pending five-year gap between the shuttle’s scheduled 2010 retirement and the promised March 15, 2015, debut of Ares 1 and Orion, NASA and members of Congress are looking for ways to minimize impacts on the human spaceflight work force. The
United States
will be forced to rely on
to transport astronauts to the international space station during the five-year gap, a prospect that has prompted shuttle advocates to call for extending the space shuttle beyond 2010.

While U.S. President Barack Obama in his 2010 budget blueprint endorsed retiring the shuttle in 2010, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) scored a win for shuttle proponents when a provision calling for giving NASA an additional $2.5 billion to keep flying the shuttle through 2011 if necessary to complete the manifest was adopted March 25 by the Senate Budget Committee.

The shuttle provision is mostly symbolic since the money would have to be approved again during the 2011 budget process, which will not begin in earnest until next February when Obama sends his proposal to Congress.

Shaw said Boeing would support extending the space shuttle provided the money to pay for it did not pull money away from Constellation work.

“We have maintained for the last several years that Boeing Company will support NASA in any effort to fly shuttle past the artificial stop date of fiscal 2010 as long as doing so didn’t damage the Constellation program,” Shaw said. “So if the government and Mr. Nelson want to come up with some more money to keep flying shuttle a little longer by golly we’ll support them. The shuttle will be plenty safe to fly. They are safer now than they’ve ever been.”

While proponents of retiring the space shuttle argue that it will not be safe to fly much beyond 2010, John Mulholland, Boeing’s shuttle program manager, said the shuttle could continue to fly well into the next decade.

Recertification of many parts of the shuttle, as recommended after the 2003
disaster, already has occurred, he said.

“I’d argue that we’re doing things every flight to make it safer. … Is there a risk? Absolutely, but I don’t think it’s as bad as some people think,” Mulholland said March 31.