WASHINGTON — Contractors told a Senate panel March 28 that the budget pressures confronting the U.S. space agency will make it very difficult for NASA to smoothly transition its shuttle work force to jobs associated with the replacement vehicle now under development. As a result, they said, there is a much higher chance that Kennedy Space Center and other NASA facilities will have to cut more jobs than ought to be necessary as the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010.

NASA already has conceded this year that it would miss by several months the 2014 deadline set by President George W. Bush for fielding the nation’s next human space flight system –‑ the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 rocket. They have blamed the delay on a confluence of issues including an unexpectedly flat 2007 budget.

With the U.S. space shuttle fleet slated for retirement in 2010, NASA faces at least a four-year gap in its ability to conduct its own manned space launches, a matter of no small concern to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce space and aeronautics subcommittee, and his Republican counterpart Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. Both senators represent states with substantial space shuttle work forces and have pledged to press for the additional funding they say NASA needs to field Orion and Ares by 2014 or earlier.

While NASA already faces a substantial gap, Nelson noted that making that gap longer will make it that much harder to staff up — including rehiring experienced employees — when the new vehicle is ready to be brought on line.

“Obviously there is going to be some job loss because if you are not launching humans — if you are not launching the vehicle — you are going to need less of the work force,” Nelson said during the hearing he called to examine NASA’s shuttle-to-Orion transition plan. “Extending the gap just makes it a larger problem for us to figure out how to keep the skill set the nation needs to operate the next vehicle.”

Nelson, the lone senator in attendance, said NASA Administrator Mike Griffin recently informed him that fielding Orion in 2013 would require giving NASA $400 million in 2008 above and beyond the agency’s current budget request and an additional $800 million in both 2009 and 2010. But Nelson suggested the additional upfront expense could produce longer-term savings by not stretching out the development of Ares and Orion as NASA now plans in order to live within an overly constrained budget.

“Either we are going to give [NASA] all the resources [required] to get it to a three-year gap or it’s going to be a five-year gap,” Nelson said.

Nelson also pointed out that postponing Ares’ and Orion’s delivery threatens to extend the United States’ dependence on Russia for accessing a space station the United States has spent billions of dollars building.

“What’s going to be the geopolitics in 2015? Are the Russians still going to be allied with us in 2015? I don’t know the answer to that. I hope so. But there’s no certainty to that,” Nelson said.

Later, he added, “I’d as soon not have to pay Russia for access to space — not to speak of the uncertainties there — while at the same time cutting American jobs, cutting all the experience and corporate memory.”

United Space Alliance President Mike McCulley, whose 10,000 employees are overwhelmingly assigned to space shuttle operations, said a four- or five-year gap in manned launch operations at Kennedy Space Center could lead to “the tremendous loss of a critical national resource in the work force.”

McCulley said the loss would be measured “not in numbers so much, but in skill sets” as shuttle operators are retrained to support Ares and Orion development, for example.

Kennedy Space Center labor leader Johnny Walker, however, warned that the field center ultimately stands to lose about 5,500 of its current 15,000 jobs as NASA transitions from the labor-intensive space shuttle to the Orion and Ares systems, which are intended to be less labor intensive to operate. Walker, who represents 2,500 union members at Kennedy, said the job loss would be even greater if NASA is not given the budgets it needs to narrow the gap between the shuttle and Orion.

“We’re going to be emptying out facilities come the end of this great program that we’ve been a part of and I would love to see us bring in the work to try to maintain this great work force,” Walker said.

John Karas, vice president for space exploration at Lockheed Martin Space Systems – Orion’s Denver-based prime contractor, said the company already plans to perform Orion’s final checkout and assembly at Kennedy and base the spacecraft’s recovery and refurbishment team there as well.

Karas said Lockheed Martin was looking for additional opportunities to utilize Kennedy’s existing work force and mentioned additional logistics and testing operations as two examples. “We’re looking to expand our footprint down at the Cape in order to alleviate that problem the best we can,” he said.

Ron Dittemore, the former NASA space shuttle program manager currently serving as president of Brigham City, Utah-based ATK Launch Systems, said NASA’s decision to make extensive use of space shuttle infrastructure and hardware designs will help ease the transition of t he manufacturing work force from the shuttle to Orion and Ares.

ATK manufactures four-segment solid-rocket boosters for the space shuttle, and is under contract to develop a five-segment booster that will serve as the Ares 1’s main stage.

“Much of our work force that manufactures those solid-rocket motors will be used for both the four-segment and transition over to the five-segment. In fact we believe we will save NASA a significant amount of money because of the … synergy opportunities between the two programs,” Dittemore said.

Dittemore said NASA’s transition plans also takes into account the need to maintain a skilled launch operations work force, namely by ramping up Ares 1 testing as the shuttle program winds down.

“The test flight program is planned to bridge the last shuttle flight all the way to the first operational flight of the Ares 1 launch vehicle,” Dittemore said.

Still, Dittemore testified that these plans stand to be disrupted as the shuttle-to-Orion gap grows.

“I truly believe we need to minimize the gap,” he said. “Any extension of the gap is only going to exacerbate a transition issue.”

William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations, said he has been working closely with the NASA associate administrator for exploration systems, Scott Horowitz, on the shuttle-to-Orion transition and expected to have a clear understanding of the agency’s future work-force needs later this year as Orion and Ares requirements are nailed down. But the single biggest factor in ensuring a smooth transition, he said, is minimizing the gap.

“The longer the gap, the more difficult it becomes to retain our work force,” he said.

Nelson quizzed Gerstenmaier on how much money NASA could save by shortening Ares and Orion’s development schedule rather than stretching it out to 2015 as currently planned.

Gerstenmaier said moving Ares 1’s first crewed flight from March 2015 back to September 2014 would cost an additional $750 million in the years just ahead but would eliminate $1.1 billion in development costs for a net savings of $350 million.

To Nelson’s frustration, Gerstenmaier said he would need two weeks to examine whether fielding Ares and Orion by 2013 is still possible and if so, what the earlier delivery date would save in total development dollars.

Nelson told Gerstenmaier to make sure NASA factors in what it would save by not having to purchase Russian Progress and Soyuz vehicles beyond 2013.

Allen Li, a space acquisition expert at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, told Nelson he was skeptical that more money would ensure an earlier delivery of the shuttle’s replacement.

“Everything has to go well,” Li said. “It’s not certain that we are going to be able to hit 2014 even with those [higher] budget levels.”

Li’s views, however, were not shared by the other witnesses “I don’t do policy … but my observation is they [NASA officials] don’t have enough money to do what they’ve been asked to do,” United Space Alliance’s McCulley said.

Nelson called on the witnesses to personally engage in the political outreach he said was necessary to get NASA the money it needs if it is going to minimize the gap and smoothly transition from shuttle to the new system.

“Sen. Hutchison and I can’t do this by ourselves. There are key additional senators that we are going to have to have their vote,” he said. “Every one of you sitting at that table has a relationship with those senators. I would appreciate it very much if you would give them the value of your knowledge and your opinion.”