When NASA released a report April 1
forecasting that as many as 10,000 contractors could lose their jobs when the space shuttle stops flying,
agency officials called the estimate
a worst-case scenario that did not take into account many of the jobs that will be created as the United States steps up its effort to return to the Moon.


But with U.S. voters preparing to elect a new president and
Congress in November, there is no guarantee that NASA will be told to stay the course. And that worries some NASA officials at least as much as the technical challenges that lay ahead as the agency sets out to field the nation’s first new human space transportation system in a generation.


“We have to have a long-term commitment and the fortitude of the country to stand behind this,” said Richard Gilbrech, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems. “Even with all the technical problems we could face, none of them keep me up at night as much as the stability of the country and the administration and the Congress staying behind the path we are on.”


Gilbrech’s comment came during a panel discussion here April 8
on the looming gap between the last flight of the space shuttle and the first flight of its planned successor, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 launcher.


NASA intends to retire the shuttle in 2010 after a summer repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope and 10 more flights to the international space station. Orion and Ares, still in their preliminary design phase, are not expected to enter service until March 2015 given NASA’s budget limitations.


NASA says that with
an additional $2 billion spread over the next couple of years, it could move the
Orion and Ares debut
to late 2013. But the White House has not asked Congress to provide the cash infusion, so NASA and its contractors are bracing for at least a four-and-a-half year gap in U.S. human spaceflight capability that could get
much longer if anything – be it the laws of physics or budget politics – intrudes to stymie progress on Ares and Orion.

“We need to stay focused and stay the course because one little hiccup and this gap becomes 10 years,” said Bill Parsons, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida


stands to lose as many as 6,400 jobs – roughly 80 percent of its contractor work force – unless Ares and Orion, or something comparable, bring
new opportunities to the


Some Florida lawmakers would like to see NASA extend shuttle flights beyond 2010 in order to close or at least narrow the gap. NASA officials say such a strategy would be risky and ultimately self-defeating. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told a Senate panel April 3
that given budget realities, every year
the shuttle remains in service beyond 2010 would
delay Orion and Ares by a like amount


Even some contractors that might
stand to gain from delaying the shuttle’s retirement say they agree with
Griffin’s logic. Jim Albaugh, president of St. Louis-based Boeing Integrated Defense Systems, told Space News in an interview April 8
that he would prefer to see any extra money go toward
Orion and Ares rather than shuttle.


“Don’t get me wrong, we love the shuttle, but I don’t want to do anything that would detract from the current space policy. If NASA got an extra $1 billion I would rather see that put into Constellation,” Albaugh
said. Constellation refers to Ares and Orion as well as additional systems NASA needs to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020.

While the space shuttle is due to stop flying in two and a half years, the United States will remain obligated to provide crew transport and resupply services for the international space station until at least the middle of the next decade. To honor U.S. commitments, NASA
already has agreed to pay Russia $780 million for crew and cargo
flights to the station through 2011 and is seeking permission from Congress to extend the deal through 2015.


That reality has prompted some U.S. companies to call for some combination of accelerating
Orion and Ares or pumping more money into NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services
program, under which
$500 million is committed to subsidize new cargo transportation services being developed by Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Science Corp. and Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Neither company plans to demonstrate their system before 2010.


“I’d much rather see us spend our taxpayers’ money on our own companies to close the gap then to spend it with other nations,” Ron Dittemore, president of ATK Launch Systems Group of Brigham City, Utah,
told reporters during a
press conference here April 8.


Gilbrech summed up NASA’s official position when he said that, like it or not, the agency has no near-term alternative to Russia for crew transport and resupply flights. “In all the scenarios we are looking at, it’s a huge gamble to say commercial or Orion can fill that gap, and therefore we have to have that insurance policy with the Russian vehicles,” Gilbrech said.


The political sustainability of NASA’s plan for returning to the Moon
also was touched upon earlier in the day by Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), chairman of the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee.

Udall chided the White House for not providing the funding experts say NASA needs to make good on its plans to field Orion and Ares by 2015 and remain on track to conduct its first lunar sorties by 2020.


“I have seen a growing concern that the resources the administration has been providing for exploration are inadequate for achieving the objectives it has set for NASA. And I’ve seen a growing interest in making sure NASA’s exploration initiative is structured in a way that maximizes the return from whatever budgetary resources future administrations and congresses decide to allocate to it.”


Udall, who is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Wayne Allard at the end of this year, said he would reach out to Democratic presidential hopefuls Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York, and called on Republicans to do the same with Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee.


Eileen Collins, the retired NASA astronaut who commanded the first shuttle flight after the 2003 Columbia accident, expressed optimism that regardless of who is president at this time next year, the nation would continue its investment in space exploration.

“When they are fully briefed and that person fully understands the importance of the investment in our space program, common sense will set in and they will fund the space program,” Collins said, drawing applause from the audience. “I think Americans will be shocked when the news media starts covering the last shuttle flight.