— Ares 1 main-stage prime contractor AlliantTechsystems (ATK) reached an agreement in late-September with United Space Alliance (USA) meant to keep the Houston-based space shuttle operator engaged in the development of the shuttle’s successor until a long-term deal can be concluded.

Ares 1 will be used to launch the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, the space shuttle replacement that is expected to begin flying in 2015.

“ATK and top management have agreed to pursue a go-forward plan that would be mutually positive and beneficial to the program and both parties,” George Torres, a spokesman for based ATK Launch Systems Group said Sept. 29 in an e-mail message. “While we are in discussions on the final agreement, the team has agreed to continue to work on the program to insure there is no short- term or long-term impact. Our overall goal is to ensure the success of the program.”

Reached by phone Sept. 30, spokeswoman Tracy Yates gave a nearly identical statement.

Torres and Yates said ATK and did not put a timeframe on the latest extension.

“I don’t know that there’s a set time,” Yates said. “The talks are continuing.”

had been threatening to walk away from its support role on the Ares 1 main stage as of Sept. 21, when the latest extension of a so-called letter contract awarded in 2006 was set to expire.

That threat, shared with employees in a Sept. 18 letter from President Richard Covey, came just one month after his company filed suit in ‘s Brevard County Circuit Court alleging fraud and breach of contract by ATK. The lawsuit claims ATK was aggressively recruiting and hiring employees while at the same time reducing the shuttle operator’s role in the design and development of the Ares 1 first stage.

ATK said at the time that the suit was without merit.

After agreeing to a one-week extension that would have expired Sept. 28, and ATK reached a second 11th-hour deal meant to keep employees on the job until a long-term solution could be reached.

ATK hired as a subcontractor in 2006 to support the design and development of the Ares 1 main stage, an effort that includes a test flight dubbed Ares 1-X slated for the summer of 2009. Hardware for that flight already has been built and delivered to NASA’s , with the remainder due to ship out from ATK manufacturing facilities in this fall.

Yates told Space News in a Sept. 19 phone interview that about 600 employees were charging some portion of their time to the ATK contract, with the equivalent of roughly 180 people supporting ATK full-time. Yates said at the time that although intended to stop work Sept. 22, the company would honor its contractual obligation to transition data, hardware and other materials associated with the project.

Torres said at the time that ATK was working contingency plans for continuing the Ares 1 work at without ‘s help, if necessary.

Torres declined at the time to elaborate on the options.

Meanwhile, ATK has been staffing-up in and has hired around 20 employees in the past month or so. Torres said ATK received over 300 resumes for its openings since the company started holding job fairs in the spring.

Both Yates and Torres said there have been no major legal developments since filed its suit in August. Torres said ATK anticipates an initial hearing in November or December. Yates said both sides still are “going through standard discovery.”

About 10,000 people work for , with more than half of them in . NASA has said the Ares and Orion programs will not provide full employment for ‘s current work force. Between 3,000 and 6,000 shuttle workers -many currently employed by – are expected to lose their jobs when the space shuttle stops flying.

Current plans call for retiring the shuttle fleet in 2010, with Ares and Orion to begin operations in 2015.

Yates said Sept. 19, when the threat of a walkout was still on the table, that employees did not have to worry about losing their jobs when the ATK contract expires.

“There [are] adequate work and reassignment opportunities to place all these employees,” she said.