A Florida congressman seeking to extend the space shuttle program beyond its planned 2010 retirement said he will vote to block NASA’s plans to buy Russian Soyuz capsules while a shuttle replacement is built.


NASA plans to launch Soyuz capsules for space station maintenance missions for five years after the shuttle is retired. But the U.S. space agency must first win congressional approval to waive the Iran-
North Korea-
Syria Nonproliferation Act
that bars the U.S. government
from doing business with Russia. NASA needs approval this summer so the agency can complete negotiations and Russia can begin the three-year process of building the capsules.


U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), whose district includes areas near
Cape Canaveral where NASA and contractor employees are facing
job cuts after the shuttle is retired, criticized the agency for its decision to rely
on Russia after NASA stops using its three remaining space shuttles.
Speaking at an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics conference May 14, Weldon recalled the first INKSA waiver Congress granted NASA so it could
work with Russia on the international space station: the Russians delivered their service module two years late and the United States had to pay $800 million to get the space station program back on track.


“They will be laying engineers off in my district and hiring in Moscow,” Weldon said. “I will vote no to extend the waiver because I think it’s just a terrible idea.”


Weldon has proposed delaying the space shuttle program’s retirement to allow two flights to the space station per year for crew changeover. He estimated NASA would need an additional $2 billion per year for five years to keep two of the three shuttles and two processing centers on line. Under his plan, NASA would retire the shuttle when the Ares 1 rocket and Orion crew carrier are completed in March 2015 under the Constellation program.


“It’s not a matter of money. When people say it’s too expensive to keep the shuttle flying, that we have to rely on the Russians and we don’t have the money, don’t accept that phrase. Just don’t believe it,” Weldon said, referring to other U.S. programs expected to receive budget increases this year. “This is clearly an issue of priorities.”


Mark Albrecht, who served as executive secretary of the White House National Space Council
from 1989 to 1992 under President George H.W. Bush, said he expects the job outlook to remain strong during NASA’s transition from the space shuttle program to Constellation.


“I think the impact on
the work force is not going to be as dramatic as you might think because bringing a new launch system and a new human-capable launch system online at the Cape is going to take an enormous work force,” he said. “I would almost say it’s hard to imagine how you can sustain an aggressive shuttle program [while] at the same time bringing on a new launch system capable of bringing people up and down to space, and sustain further exploration.”

Weldon, however, said the current plan that could result in the loss of 6,400 jobs at Cape Canaveral sends the wrong message to the young college graduates the aerospace industry is trying to attract. His comments were delivered to leaders of aerospace companies, government agencies and military officials gathered in Washington to discuss an anticipated shortage of engineers and scientists as the majority of the work force nears retirement.


Other nations face similar shortages. The European Space Agency, for example, re-advertised 12 percent of its 336 vacancies in 2006 because of a lack of qualified applicants
, said Francesco Emma, head of the agency’s education office in Noordwijk,


To address a worker shortage that has loomed for at least a decade, the United States should place a greater emphasis on pre-college and college education in science, technology, engineering and math, and should find ways to generate excitement about space among a younger, more diverse generation, conference panelists said. That can be achieved through education, hands-on experience and programs outside of classrooms that make science relevant to children and their parents, panelists said.

Comments: riannotta@space.com