WASHINGTON — NASA’s plan to eliminate thousands of jobs in Florida and Louisiana while the agency pays Russia hundreds of millions of dollars to launch people and payloads to the international space station came under fire during a Senate hearing.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told the Senate Commerce aeronautics and space subcommittee Feb. 27 that Florida’s Kennedy Space Center stands to lose “several thousand” contractor jobs following the space shuttle’s looming 2010 retirement.

While some of those jobs should return as NASA begins flying the shuttle’s successor — the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 launcher — the new system is designed to require fewer people to operate than the labor-intensive shuttle. Orion and Ares are not scheduled to begin operations until 2015, although flight tests from Kennedy could begin a few years sooner.

The shuttle program employs roughly 14,000 contractors and civil servants
 at Kennedy. Griffin said Kennedy needs to take on new roles to maintain its current work force levels post-shuttle. “The displacement of lives, the displacement of skills matters to me and it matters to my team,” Griffin said. “We are working it and we don’t have all the answers today.”

NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans also stands to lose jobs with the shuttle’s retirement. The contractor-operated facility produces the shuttle’s external fuel tank. As tank production ends, employment at the site “will drop from about 1,900 today to under 600, somewhere down around 500 for a time before coming back up,” Griffin said.

NASA and its contractors plan to use Michoud to assemble parts of Orion and Ares, but that work is expected to remain fairly limited until the new system begins making regular flights.

Griffin’s numbers did not sit well with Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and David Vitter (R-La.), the two lawmakers who presided over the hearing. Nelson is the subcommittee’s chairman, and Vitter is the ranking Republican.

“I am deeply troubled by the direction the space program is heading,” Nelson said. “A countdown clock has started, but unfortunately it is not a countdown to launch; rather, it is a countdown to crisis.”

Later, Nelson pointedly asked Griffin whether Johnson Space Center in Houston and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. — NASA’s other two human spaceflight-focused centers — also stand to lose jobs once the shuttle is retired.

“Will other centers feel the pain? How about Johnson? How about Marshall?” Nelson asked.

“Broadly speaking I don’t think we are going to have significant work force reductions at [Johnson] or Marshall,” Griffin said.

Johnson is NASA’s lead engineering center for the Constellation program, which encompasses Orion, Ares and the other systems needed to go to the Moon. Marshall is leading the Ares design work.

NASA, meanwhile, intends to enter negotiations with Russia this year for the purchase of additional Soyuz and Progress vehicles the United States will need to staff and supply the space station in 2012 and beyond. NASA already has signed contracts totaling $780 million for Russia to provide such services through 2011.

Before negotiations can begin, however, Congress needs to grant NASA temporary relief from provisions in the Iran-North Korea-Syria Non-proliferation Act (INKSA) that effectively bar payments to Russia for space station-related services. A congressional waiver granted in 2005 expires in 2011. Nelson said the White House would need to make a formal request by March 14 to give Congress enough time to act.

“If we do not have further exemption to the INKSA provisions then there will not be a U.S. crew on the [space station] after 2011 and we will have to abrogate our commitment to our international partners to provide transportation for them,” Griffin said

Beyond providing routine crew transport, the Soyuz capsule serves as the space station’s crew lifeboat even though that job is supposed to be NASA’s. Griffin said Orion would not be certified for six-month stays at the station until it has been in service for about a year.

Vitter suggested NASA could improve its bargaining position with Russia by putting Orion on a more aggressive schedule or paying Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) to get cracking on upgrading the Falcon 9 rocket and its planned space station resupply capsule to carry crews. “It certainly seems like there could be substantial savings in payments to the Russians for certain actions we could take,” Vitter said.

Griffin said SpaceX was making progress toward the cargo-delivery demonstration NASA is subsidizing under a Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) agreement and that it might make sense to bet on their eventual success
 and get them working toward a crewed demo.

“If we are willing to take a little more risk — and this may be the time to take more risk — it is possible to recognize progress and make an earlier award of Phase D,” Griffin said, referring to a demonstration of crew carrying capability.

SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., proposed using $175 million in COTS money that became available last fall when NASA dropped Rocketplane Kistler from the program to accelerate its timetable for a crewed demo. NASA passed on the idea, selecting Orbital Science Corp. Feb. 19 to work on a system that would launch from Virginia’s Wallops Flight Facility.

Nelson questioned the wisdom of picking Orbital over SpaceX, which plans to launch its station-bound Dragon capsule from Florida.

SpaceX President Elon Musk said in an interview that his company could be ready to do a crewed flight within 30 months of NASA giving the go-ahead. “We were simply proposing that NASA pull the trigger,” he said of his recent unsuccessful COTS bid. “And we are hopeful that NASA will pull the trigger anyway. It’s either that, or we will be thumbing rides from the Russians for the better part of the decade — guaranteed.”