NASA’s announcement that it will move forward with a heavy-lift launch vehicle that takes advantage of previous investments in the space shuttle and a now-defunct follow-on program could breathe new life into Pratt & Whitney’s rocket propulsion division, a senior company executive said.

Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, a major contractor on the now-retired space shuttle program, has been in limbo ever since the White House canceled a follow-on program dubbed Constellation, which was to leverage propulsion hardware built or under development by the company. Industry officials have acknowledged in recent months that Pratt & Whitney was considering a sale of the business.

Pratt & Whitney President David Hess said that while the company’s liquid-fueled rocket engine business has been forced to lay off personnel, NASA’s Sept. 14 Space Launch System (SLS) announcement offers new hope. Hess was speaking that same day here at a luncheon organized by the Aerospace Industries Association during which industry executives urged the government to spare the Defense Department from the deep budget cuts apparently in store for U.S. government agencies.

“Looks like there is the new Space Launch System announcement going on as we speak right now,” Hess said. “Maybe there is a direction now.”

The multibillion-dollar Space Launch System, coupled with the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, is intended to support astronaut missions to deep space destinations while serving as a government-owned backup to commercially operated crew taxis for the international space station. Both vehicles were mandated by Congress in the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law in October.

Hess cautioned that even though NASA now appears to be moving forward on the Space Launch System, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne is not yet ready to commit to rehiring employees who were laid off as the space shuttle program wound down. The space shuttle’s last flight occurred in July.

“When we started letting go our engineers, those who worked on these model programs will retire or move on to other industries. Those reductions will continue until there is something that succeeds the [Space Shuttle program],” he said.