and its representatives in Congress are understandably anxious about job losses in and around NASA’s with the upcoming retirement of the space shuttle. It is estimated that there will be a net loss of some 3,000- 4,000 positions once NASA completes the transition from the shuttle, slated to cease operations in 2010, to the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 launcher, which are expected to begin transporting astronauts to and from space starting around 2015.

This is less than the 5,500 to 6,400 previously feared, but assumes that work begins on schedule for the Ares 5 heavy-lift rocket and Altair lander in preparation for missions to the Moon – something that looks uncertain given the coming change in presidential administrations. But even if NASA’s current lunar exploration timetable remains intact, the job losses at Kennedy will be significant and painful.

Unfortunately, this is necessary; the reason the space shuttle always has been so hugely expensive is that it requires what has become known as the standing army at Kennedy to operate, regardless of its actual flight rate. Orion and Ares were specifically designed to operate more affordably, something that is absolutely critical if NASA is to be able to invest in Ares 5, Altair and other systems it will need to carry astronauts to destinations beyond the international space station.

Faced with a Florida congressional delegation seemingly intent on continuing shuttle operations indefinitely – which might preserve jobs in the state but would undermine any chance NASA has of breaking out of low Earth orbit – NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has come up with a novel idea for mitigating the pain: make Kennedy responsible for the engineering work necessary to ensure continued safety of Orion and Ares operations.

This would be a brand new activity for Kennedy; for the space shuttle, such sustaining engineering is split between in in These centers would not miss the loss of that work on Orion and Ares 1 because they will have their hands full developing the various other systems that will enable NASA’s return to the Moon, Mr. Griffin told Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) during a recent field hearing hosted by the Cape Canaveral Port Authority near Kennedy.

Sen. Nelson, who chairs the Senate Commerce space, aeronautics and related sciences subcommittee and is pushing to defer the shuttle’s retirement beyond 2010, was partially mollified: “I cannot say it is good news but it’s certainly news that’s a step in the right direction.” It would be better, the senator suggested, if NASA also would shift some of the hardware development work to Kennedy.

Such a reaction is understandable – voters expect their elected representatives to fight for their economic well being. But as Mr. Griffin correctly pointed out, shifting hardware development work from Marshall or Johnson to Kennedy would create more political problems for NASA without decreasing net job losses overall. Moreover, it would do nothing to help many of the shuttle workers who actually stand to lose their jobs – those whose skills are unique to that program.

What Mr. Griffin has offered will not eliminate the pain at Kennedy, but it should lessen its severity, as should various federally and state-funded efforts to retrain shuttle workers. Florida’s lawmakers would best serve their constituents – and the nation – by putting their efforts into planning for a smooth transition from shuttle to Orion-Ares rather than trying to put off the inevitable and in doing so jeopardizing the creation of new jobs that would replace many of those that are going away.