WASHINGTON — NASA has advised contractors to anticipate reduced spending on the Moon-bound Constellation program it plans to terminate, prompting a new round of contractor layoffs.
The U.S. space agency is bound by a 2010 law to continue funding all Constellation-related contracts until Congress enacts new appropriations legislation approving the termination or restructuring of the program.
Although the U.S. government’s 2011 budget year began Oct. 1, lawmakers failed to pass any 2011 appropriations bills before leaving Washington last month until mid-November, leaving NASA and the rest of the federal government to operate through Dec. 3 under a stopgap measure called a continuing resolution that funds agencies at no greater than 2010 spending levels. For NASA, that means making do for at least the next eight weeks with 1.5 percent less than the $19 billion the White House has budgeted for the agency for 2011.
Spending on Constellation, which includes development of the Ares 1 rocket and Orion crew capsule, is expected to decline as much as 25 percent for the two months ahead, according to NASA spokesman Michael Braukus. In an Oct. 1 e-mail Braukus said NASA plans to immediately reduce its Constellation spending from an average rate of $282 million per month down to $212 million per month. If Congress fails to enact a 2011 budget when it returns in November and instead extends the continuing resolution beyond Dec. 3, “that amount will go lower,” Braukus said.
Two years ago, when Constellation was still going strong, NASA contractors were anticipating that spending on the program would have ramped up to an average of $540 million per month by now. Much of that money would have gone toward retaining workers now facing layoffs as the space shuttle heads toward retirement and the assembly phase of the international space station program nears completion.
As NASA prepares to gradually diminish spending on the program, some Constellation contractors are responding with pink slips. Ares 1 prime contractor Alliant TechSystems, for example, said Oct. 1 it would lay off about 300 Ares 1 workers in Utah this month.
Robert Lightfoot, the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., told local reporters Oct. 5 he expects between 150 and 250 Constellation contractors to lose their jobs “over this next short term,” according to Marshall spokeswoman Jennifer Stanfield . A NASA official told Space News that the bulk of those layoffs were expected to hit workers associated with a Constellation support contract held by Tullahoma, Tenn.-based Jacobs Technology. Huntsville’s NBC television affiliate, WAFF 48, reported Oct. 5 that about 175 Jacobs contractors are expected to receive layoff notices Oct. 7.
Jacobs spokeswoman Michelle Jones was unavailable Oct. 6 to comment on the layoffs, according to her office.
Braukus told Space News Oct. 5 that NASA’s monthly expenditures on Constellation under the continuing resolution could exceed $212 million, noting that NASA is “looking at options for a two-month burn rate that will minimize additional layoffs.”
But industry sources say even if NASA opts to boost the monthly spending for Constellation, the additional funding would come too late to stem job losses associated with the marked-for-termination program.
Even before Obama sent Congress a 2011 budget plan in February calling for the cancellation of Constellation, lawmakers had passed a measure to prevent NASA from terminating the effort until a subsequent appropriations bill is signed into law. Passage of a 2010 NASA authorization bill last month provides some direction for the agency, calling for funds to continue development of an Orion-like capsule for deep space missions while requiring the agency to leverage its investments in the space shuttle, Orion and Ares 1 as it moves out on development of a new space transportation system.
Dale Thomas, Constellation manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said the program is conducting programmatic triage as it continues to fund elements that could be used in the development of a new heavy-lift launch vehicle and deep space crew capsule.
“We are working very hard with [NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate in Washington] to put all the emphasis on the content of Constellation that plays forward to the programs that will be functioning per the authorization,” Thomas said in an Oct. 5 interview.
For example, NASA will complete an advanced manufacturing demonstration of the Ares J-2X upper-stage engine nozzle extension before the end of the year, at which point the project will be shelved, Thomas said. In addition, NASA is expected to complete work on the A-3 engine test stand at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, but the agency is not planning to spend Constellation funds to do it.
“Constellation is just trying to save that test stand because we don’t need it to fire the engine unless we’re using that nozzle extension,” he said. “But Stennis is trying to find other funding sources to finish it up. It won’t get finished with Constellation funding.”
While the three-year authorization bill provides general policy guidance to the agency and sets funding levels for congressional appropriators to consider when shaping annual spending bills, it provides no actual money.
To date neither chamber has approved a 2011 spending bill for NASA, though the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee adopted a placeholder bill that largely follows Obama’s $19 billion request for the agency while fencing off spending on exploration programs until an authorization is enacted. The Senate Appropriations Committee came closer to approving a bill in July with a $19 billion proposal that largely mirrors what Senate authorizers outlined in their newly enacted bill. But the measure has yet to pass the full Senate, which leaves NASA in limbo until lawmakers return from mid-term elections in November.
The continuing resolution, which the president signed into law Sept. 30, requires the agency to fund Ares and Orion at levels not to exceed those enacted in 2010. However, it does not set a clear “floor” for such funding, allowing the agency to slow spending on Constellation projects until the new appropriation provides tacit authority to terminate them.
Accordingly, Braukus said, the Constellation program gave the Ares and Orion projects new spending targets that fall somewhere between levels in the Senate Appropriations Committee’s draft 2011 spending bill and Constellation funding allocated from last year’s appropriation.
“Under this spend-rate plan, the Constellation Program has communicated these and other funding levels to the Constellation projects,” Braukus said, adding that the program is unable to break out funding levels along project lines. “As such, the projects have been working with their contractors to negotiate Constellation content under this more restrictive spend plan,” he said.