A NASA report released April 1 says the U.S. space agency’s human space
flight centers could lose as many as 10,000 contractor jobs by the time the space shuttle stops flying in 2010.
Florida’s Kennedy Space Center would be the hardest hit, with as many as 6,400 contractor jobs –
about 80 percent of its current work force – eliminated in the next two to three years. Civil service employment levels would be largely unaffected.
NASA officials cautioned that the projected job losses were a worst-case scenario that did not take fully into account the role that Kennedy and some of the other field centers will play in returning the United States to the Moon.
In the weeks leading up to the release of the congressionally mandated biannual report, NASA officials here said they expected Kennedy’s projected job losses would shrink by as much as half as the agency gets closer to awarding some $20 billion worth of contracts for the Ares 5 heavy-lift rocket and the four-person Altair lunar lander.
During a teleconference with reporters to discuss the report, William Gerstenmaier, NASA
associate administrator for space operations
did not go that far. However, Gerstenmaier did say that
the agency’s job loss projections were preliminary figures that probably overstate the severity of the work-force transition challenge the agency faces as it prepares to retire the shuttle and field its less-labor-intensive successor, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 rocket, about four-and-a-half years later. “We have to be careful that we don’t give these numbers more credence than they deserve,
NASA developed the job loss projections by asking Houston-based United Space Alliance and a host of smaller shuttle contractors to calculate the number of excess workers they expect to have as the shuttle program ramps down to retirement.
Contractors focused on NASA work they had on the books, leaving out of their projections for work that has yet to be awarded.
“There’s a lot of work that’s not folded into these numbers,” said Richard Gilbrech, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems.
Among the factors the contractors were not able to take into account, according to Gerstenmaier, were
some shuttle-related work NASA has yet to authorize, numerous subcontracts still to be awarded for various Ares and Orion development- and test-related activities, and the big prime contracts for the Ares 5 and Altair lander.
Gilbrech said the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate intends to give Kennedy Space Center new roles that will help the center grow beyond its traditional operations role. In addition to taking on final assembly duties for Orion, Kennedy also will
help build the Altair landers, for example. Development activity associated with lunar habitats and in-situ resource utilization likewise would be led out of Kennedy, according to Gilbrech.
Nearer term, NASA’s plan to keep
shuttle Atlantis flying at least two missions beyond August’s Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission will go a long way towards erasing the 600-700 Kennedy contractor positions that might otherwise be eliminated in 2009, according to Gerstenmaier. The Ares 1-X flight test, slated for 2009 out of Cape Canaveral, Fla.,
also will help mitigate projected job loss, he said.
Likewise, space station resupply flights of the sort NASA is trying to foster under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program should help absorb some of the local contractor work force as companies such as Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies hires and contracts for services to support Florida launch operations.
Ongoing shuttle operations also are expected to stem some of the projected near-term job loss at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. While the report shows that the Lockheed Martin-operated facility stands to lose nearly one-quarter of its 1,900-person work force come 2009, Gerstenmaier said recent experience manufacturing space shuttle external tanks to NASA’s more stringent specifications suggests that Michoud might need to hire rather than fire workers, at least in the short term. Looking out beyond the last shuttle flight, Michoud also is poised to pick up work on Orion, the Ares 1 upper stage and the Ares 5 Earth-departure stage that could all but eliminate project job loss there, Gerstenmaier said.
NASA is required by law to send Congress an updated work-force transition report every six months. While the next report, due this fall, likely will
show a reduction in the 2009 job loss figures, Gerstenmaier said it
probably would take another year to a year and a half before the 2011 and beyond projections show a decline.
NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., have less to worry about than Kennedy and Michoud since their largely engineering-oriented work forces are well positioned to transition from the shuttle and international space station programs to Orion, Ares and related follow-on efforts.
But Gerstenmaier also made clear that extending the gap between the shuttle’s retirement and the beginning of Orion flight operations or delaying NASA’s timetable for returning to the Moon
actually would produce more job losses than currently projected, not fewer
“If the gap is extensive and there is no future work coming, then [the projected job losses] will be bigger than this potentially,” Gerstenmaier said. “
If there is no new work coming, then it’s essentially the shuttle work force disappearing at that point.”
That is what has lawmakers, including Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), worried.
Weldon, whose district is home to many people who depend on Kennedy for their livelihoods, sponsored the amendment requiring NASA to produce the work-force transition report and update it every six months.
“The reason I wanted NASA to do this report is because there are a lot of people including members of the Senate and members of the House as well as a lot of people in central Florida and around the country who are not aware what’s going to happen,” Weldon said in an April 1 interview. “I think it’s good to get this aired out.”
Weldon said he takes some comfort in knowing that projected job losses could drop as NASA’s transition plans continue to shape up. But he said the job loss projections also could get worse.
“There is also the worry out there that there could be technical delays in those programs and the operational onset of Orion could be moved from 2015 to 2016 or 2017 and you could have even more layoffs,” he said. “So it could go either way.”
Additionally, there is no guarantee that the next U.S. president will support NASA’s plan to return to the Moon by 2020, or ever, for that matter.
“Barack Obama basically said publicly that he would like to move money from manned spaceflight to health care and education,” Weldon said. “He then backtracked off of that statement, but it could be very much affected by who gets elected president.”
Weldon is pushing legislation that would extend shuttle flights to 2013 while accelerating development of Ares and Orion to bring those two systems on line that same year, making for a smoother transition. “We would still have layoffs at Kennedy Space Center, but they would be much less,” he said.
Weldon’s proposal is not cheap: NASA says flying the shuttle beyond 2010 would cost $3 billion a year, while shaving 18 months off Orion and Ares development –
the best the agency says it could do at this point –
would cost an extra $2 billion.
But Weldon insists his proposal is better than NASA’s current plan.
“The plan, which has really been driven by [the White House Office of Management and Budget] currently calls for laying off people in Florida and hiring people in Russia with U.S. taxpayer dollars,” Weldon said.
That may sound extreme, but it is factually accurate. NASA already has agreed to pay Russia $780 million for Soyuz and Progress flights to the international space station through 2011 and is asking Congress this year for permission to extend the deal until 2015 or later.
Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), said in a statement that there is “no simple fix” to NASA’s work-force transition challenge. “But we know where to focus our efforts,” he said. “We need to accelerate the Orion and Ares programs, we need to foster a competitive environment for commercial space operations, and we need to assist the individuals and businesses affected by the transition.”
Martinez said the looming shuttle layoffs are not just a Florida problem.
“This is more than a huge economic threat to our region; there is the real potential for a larger loss of human capital for our country at a time when we can’t afford to lose those who’ve dedicated their lives to specializing in engineering and science,” he said.
Meanwhile, Weldon, who is retiring from Congress at the end of this year, said he expects to deal with the job impacts “face to face” when he returns to Florida to resume private medical practice.
“I’m probably going to have laid off space workers in my office practice without health insurance,” Weldon said. “So I am going to be dealing with this right on the pointy end of the spear. It’s going to be tough on the community.”