COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — If NASA waits until 2015 to select a design for a new heavy-lift launch vehicle, it will be extremely important for the space agency to craft an interim program in a way that does not cause irreparable harm to the industrial base for space propulsion technology, said Jim Maser, president of rocket builder Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.

“We don’t want to see any Constellation contracts canceled until we have a transition plan and can transition the skill set,” Maser said April 14 during a media briefing at the National Space Symposium here. “We think the worst thing for the industry would be if all these contracts were canceled and then there was a pause of 12 to 18 months while [NASA] considered what to do next. It would not only be devastating to us, it would be devastating to the industry in terms of the impact on the work force and the ability to try to rebuild that once it was gone.”

Moreover, the cost of propulsion would climb for the U.S. Defense Department because military customers would be forced to pay the entire cost of maintaining the U.S. propulsion infrastructure and work force. “The ramifications to the Department of Defense would be huge,” Maser said. “What NASA does and the decisions it makes have a major impact on the liquid propulsion industrial base, the cost of liquid propulsion and our ability to maintain critical access to space.”

In rolling out his budget request for 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled plans to cancel the Constellation program, which consists of rockets, crew capsules and other hardware needed to replace the space shuttle, slated to retire at the end of the year, and later return astronauts to the Moon. Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, Calif., built the space shuttle main engine and was under contract to develop engines for Constellation’s Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets.

Obama announced April 15 in Florida that NASA will select a heavy-lift launcher design by 2015.

Propulsion industry officials attending the National Space Symposium say 2015 seems like a long wait for NASA to select the future heavy-lift design, although they concede that the space agency is taking that time to explore advanced technology that could serve as the foundation of future heavy-lift systems.

“If it were up to us, we would pick an architecture today or in the near future, and evolve it with block upgrades as we mature the technology,” Maser told Space News.

Since that does not appear to be the administration’s game plan, Maser said, the space agency can still help to maintain the propulsion industrial base if it launches a vigorous technology program. “We are going to want a good portion of technology work to maintain our critical skills so we are positioned to compete when an architecture is chosen,” he said.

The U.S. space propulsion industry has been faced with uncertainty ever since the administration revealed its 2011 budget plans. In light of that uncertainty, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne has been working aggressively to trim costs and overhead expenses. “Over time, you can see we are bringing our capacity down as our base drops, but the base is dropping faster than our ability to rationalize capacity,” Maser said.

As one step in that cost-cutting process, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne is consolidating its work in Canoga Park. Currently, the company has two facilities in Canoga Park, one on Canoga Avenue where the firm built the space shuttle main engines, and a more modern facility on DeSoto Avenue that housed all of the firm’s missile defense and related attitude control propulsion system work. All the work will be consolidated in the DeSoto Avenue plant, said company spokesman Bryan Kidder.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...