WASHINGTON — Industry officials say NASA should act soon if it wants the space shuttle program to avoid the “going out of business” mindset that pervaded some expendable rocket programs in the late 1990s as the U.S. Air Force began its transition to the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 evolved expendable launch vehicles.

As part of the United States’ new vision for space exploration, NASA intends to retire the space shuttle fleet by the end of 2010 after completing assembly of the international space station.

Between now and then, NASA must not only convince itself the shuttle is ready to fly again, the agency must keeping flying as many as five shuttle missions a year until it delivers the many tons of space station hardware that have been piling up at Kennedy Space Center since well before the Feb. 1, 2003 loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

Over the same period, NASA plans to ramp up development of a new Crew Exploration Vehicle and possibly begin development of a new U.S. heavy-lift launch vehicle capable of lofting the spacecraft and other hardware NASA intends to send to the Moon by 2020.

Industry officials say the shuttle program could find itself in competition with those exploration-oriented development efforts for top engineering talent and management attention, much as the development of the evolved expendable launch vehicles in the late 1990s siphoned off some of the talent and attention from the U.S. programs that were being phased out by the new rockets.

That could spell trouble for a space agency that says it is committed to ensuring that the very last shuttle launch is conducted with as much care and oversight as the program’s first shuttle launch since the loss of Columbia.

Michael Kostelnik, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for the space shuttle and international space station programs, acknowledged in a recent interview that the agency has much planning to do to ensure a successful transition away from shuttle and toward new exploration systems. “Retiring the space shuttle is more than just taking the orbiters and placing them in museums someplace,” he said.

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(157.500,0,” “,)> Kostelnik said the agency has spent the past year responding to the dramatic change of plans spelled out in the new vision for space exploration, which calls for retiring the shuttle fleet in 2010 as a prerequisite for moving human exploration beyond Earth orbit. Prior to the new vision, NASA was still considering the possibility of operating the space shuttle until 2020 or later.

Kostelnik said that nearly a year’s worth of planning will come together at the Integrated Space Operations Summit (ISOS) in Nashville, Tenn., in late March. The point of the three-day summit, he said, is to help guide long-range investments in the space shuttle and space station programs and to prepare for the transition to space exploration.

Two key focuses of this year’s summit, he said, will be on flying the shuttle safely through completion of the space station and examining the issues surrounding the shuttle’s planned retirement.

NASA expects to hear from a variety of government and industry panels about these and other issues at ISOS in late March. One of the recommendations likely to emerge from the summit, industry sources said, is that NASA’s transition plan for phasing out the space shuttle will take advantage of lessons learned from the Titan 4 program.

“NASA certainly recognizes the need to retain highly skilled, experienced managers and workers throughout the life of the shuttle program,” Kostelnik said. “Through ISOS, we’re looking at a range of options to address this.”

An industry panel chartered by NASA last year to provide input on the challenges the nation faces as the space program transitions from operating the space shuttle and space station to pursuing more ambitious exploration goals is expected to reference the Titan 4 fly-out plan in a forthcoming report. However, panel members interviewed by Space News said the final report would probably stop short of making a specific recommendation that NASA establish a fly-out plan for the space shuttle program.

Panel member Donald Brownlee, vice president of Washington operations for the Sacramento, Calif.-based propulsion house Gencorp Aerojet, declined to discuss details of the panel’s final report pending its formal release in Nashville in march. “The work of the industry panel is not complete yet and our findings will be made known as part of the entire ISOS summit review at the end of March,” Brownlee said.

Dennis Granato, another panel member who spoke at a Feb. 23 public meeting at NASA headquarters here, said NASA and industry would have to take steps to avoid a loss of human capital and suppliers critical to ensuring mission success until the very last shuttle makes it safely back to Earth.

“As you start talking about phasing out the shuttle in 2010, you’re talking about five years,” Granato said. Engineers critical to the program, he said, could decide they would prefer to pursue their career goals elsewhere.

After a spate of launch failures in the late 1990s, a blue-ribbon panel warned the U.S. Air Force that an exodus of engineering talent on the Titan 4 program would lead to more failures and recommended retention efforts designed to keep critical personnel on the program until the very last Titan 4 leaves the launch pad.

The panel, led by retired Gen. Larry Welch, former Air Force chief of staff, blamed the failures of three Titan 4 and two Delta 3 rockets during a 10-month period on engineering, workmanship and process-related problems that crept into the programs as the Air Force and its contractors shifted their focus to the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 programs.

NASA faces a similar transition as it phases out the space shuttle and international space station programs and refocuses its space operations on missions beyond Earth orbit.

In 1999 the Welch panel recommended the Air Force and its contractors develop a fly-out plan to counter the “premature going-out-of-business mindset” infecting the Titan 4 and inertial upper stage programs at the time. With the Titan 4 slated to launch roughly $9 billion worth of national security spacecraft over its final 11 flights, the Welch panel said, engineering oversight must not be allowed to wane.

NASA has a couple hundred tons of space station hardware to fly out before the end of the decade. NASA spokeswoman Melissa Mathews said the agency does not track space station hardware left to launch by cost.

Since the Welch panel issued its report, the Air Force and Lockheed Martin have launched nine Titan 4 rockets without mishap. The final two Titan 4 rockets are slated to launch this year carrying classified payloads for the Department of Defense, according to Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Julie Andrews.

Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...