WASHINGTON – NASA has halted work on equipment for housing lab rats and other research specimens aboard the international space station, raising fresh doubts about the U.S. space agency’s commitment to launching a Japanese-built centrifuge module before the space shuttle is retired.

A formal stop-work order was issued the week of Aug. 1 to Orbital Technologies Corp. (Orbitec), a Madison, Wis.-based company developing the Advanced Animal Habitat under a $33 million contract.

NASA also terminated Orbitec’s contract for the Plant Research Unit, a plant habitat the company had been developing for the centrifuge module but was put on hold late last year in order to focus on the animal habitat. NASA spokesman J.D. Harrington said the space agency had been paying Orbitec $360,000 a year to preserve the option of finishing and flying the plant habitat.

Harrington said the actions were taken to cut costs and that the savings would be redirected toward the Crew Exploration Vehicle and other agency priorities. NASA plans call for fielding a Crew Exploration Vehicle by 2011 to ferry astronauts to and from the international space station and, eventually, the Moon. The new vehicle and its launcher are expected to cost $10 billion to develop.

He said the stop-work order would affect 42 employees at Orbitec and STAR Enterprises, Orbitec’s Bloomington, Ind.-based subcontractor on the project.

Orbitec’s vice president and chief financial officer, Tom Crabb, said about half of the company’s roughly 100 employees were working at least part time on the two NASA projects . “We are a small business and we don’t have a lot of resources to sustain this,” he said. “Nearly half of the company will be impacted, but how many people we will actually lose — we are looking at that right now.”

Harrington said NASA’s decision to halt preparations for animal research aboard the space station also would affect 15 civil servants and 60 support contractors at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffet Field, Calif. Most of the support contractors, he said, work for Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md.

The Advanced Animal Habitat and Plant Research Unit were to be housed in the Centrifuge Accommodation Module, a microgravity laboratory being built for NASA by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) under a barter agreement.

Masanori Shinano, director of Space Utilization and Promotion with Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, told Space News in March that cancellation of the centrifuge facility could undermine the Japanese public’s confidence in its space program and make it more difficult to pursue cooperative projects with the United States.

“If the centrifuge is not launched, politicians and people will question the role that Japan has played in the international space station,” Shinano said.

Shinano said Japanese researchers have no plans to use the centrifuge facility, but noted that JAXA had invested some $700 million in the project in exchange for NASA’s agreement to launch the Japanese Experiments Module to the space station aboard the space shuttle.

NASA intends to retire the space shuttle fleet no later than 2010 and has been looking to minimize the number of flights between now and then while honoring commitments to deliver billions of dollars worth of European and Japanese equipment to the space station.

Ultimately it is up to the United States to decide whether to launch the Centrifuge Accommodation Module . Harrington said NASA has made no decision on the centrifuge or on the future of animal research aboard the station.

Scientists, however, said NASA’s recent actions do not bode well for future life sciences research aboard the space station.

“To stop work on these two pieces of flight hardware, both critical for life sciences research, is a major blow to the life sciences community’s ability to provide the research data necessary for the eventual long-term human exploration of space,” said Chris Brown, president of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology.

NASA is refocusing its space station research agenda on projects that contribute directly to the agency’s relatively new human space exploration goals. Although NASA has not released a revised space station utilization plan, the agency earlier this year cut some $130 million in biological and physical research projects that were to be carried out aboard the orbiting laboratory.

There are signs that deeper cuts are coming.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, for example, completed a state-of-the-art life sciences center in 2003 that sits idle waiting for a vigorous research program to get under way aboard the space station. Kennedy officials, forecasting leaner life sciences budgets, are now contemplating leasing the unused facility to a university or some other tenant, according to a NASA official.

Some lawmakers, meanwhile, are pushing back against NASA’s space station research cuts.

A NASA authorization bill approved by the House and sent to the Senate just before the August recess includes a provision that would require NASA to spend at least 15 percent of space station research funds on activities that are ” not directly related to supporting the human exploration program.”

The bill, which failed to pass the Senate by unanimous consent July 29 but could be reconsidered in September, also includes a provision that would require NASA to ensure that the space station is capable of supporting a crew of at least six astronauts and is “able to be used for a diverse range of microgravity research, including fundamental, applied and commercial research.”

NASA and the White House oppose the provisions, but have yet to get them stripped from the bill. The White House Office of Management and Budget sent lawmakers a memorandum in late July saying the provisions would “interfere with effective implementation of United States policy and preclude the flexibility needed for NASA to manage the program consistent with the [president’s space exploration] Vision.”

While some scientists blame that vision for the space station research cuts, others point out that the laboratory’s chances of living up to its billing as a world-class science facility were dramatically reduced in 2001 when NASA scaled back the program due to cost overruns.