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After shuttle lands, layoffs loom

NASA file

Assisted by divers, Atlantis astronaut Rex Walheim practices for a spacewalk underwater at Johnson Space Center's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. The lab's training pool will continue to be used for space station training, even after the shuttle fleet is retired. However, some of the spacewalk trainers will be laid off.

NASA managers are providing a sneak preview of the final space shuttle mission during a series of briefings today at Johnson Space Center in Houston, but they're also previewing how the space agency will change once Atlantis lands. One of the obvious changes will be the rapid reduction of the shuttle program's workforce, from about 6,700 workers today to less than a sixth of that number by the end of August.

Even those numbers pale in comparison with what the workforce was at its peak, shuttle program manager John Shannon told a gaggle of reporters at the space center, including yours truly. He estimated that 30,000 contractors were employed by the program at its height, around the time when Endeavour made its debut in 1992.

But there are a couple of bright spots on the horizon: Commercial companies are ramping up operations to take over the job of resupplying the International Space Station, and many of the shuttle program's workers are in a prime position to join those ventures. Looking further ahead, the space station's program director, Mike Suffredini, noted that the orbital outpost is making the transition from its construction phase to an operational phase that could provide more opportunities for research and development.

Here are a few of the bullet points from this morning's briefing on the shuttle and station programs:

• Shannon said the current shuttle workforce included about 5,500 contractor employees, in Texas, Utah, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida, plus slightly fewer than 1,200 NASA civil servants. A couple of days after the shuttle lands, about 3,200 contractors will be laid off. By around mid-August, less than 1,000 contractors would be left to help with the "transition to retirement" for the space shuttle fleet. NASA civil servants would be gradually reassigned to other tasks, including going over to space station operations, keeping tabs on the commercial spaceships and working on NASA's programs for exploration beyond Earth orbit.

• The shuttle program, as a program, ends "30 days after wheels stop," Shannon said. However, he estimated that the transition to retirement, including the process of getting the space shuttles to museums and documenting all the lessons learned over the past 30 years, would take another two years.

• United Space Alliance, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin venture that serves as the shuttle program's prime contractor, has previously floated the idea of operating two of the space shuttles as a commercial means of resupplying the space station. The idea hasn't gotten much traction to date, but Shannon said the engineers who are working on Endeavour after its final flight have been holding off from taking any actions that would make the shuttle "unrecoverable" until NASA Headquarters gives the go-ahead. "We're a little off the plan for Endeavour," Shannon told reporters. Further consideration of the United Space Alliance plan could be one of the motivations for the delay, but another possible reason would be to have a flight-capable shuttle available for engineering analysis.

• Some might ask why the shuttles have to be retired. "The bottom line is there's not enough money," Shannon said. NASA's plan for the past seven years has been to finish space station construction, then retire the fleet in order to make way for the next generation of space vehicles. Those vehicles would include spacecraft capable of going beyond Earth orbit, to a near-Earth asteroid, perhaps to the moon, and eventually to Mars. "What we're doing is we're sacrificing the shuttle to enable us to take that next step, and if we were to retire the shuttles, this is the time to do it," Shannon said.

• Suffredini said that Atlantis' mission to make the shuttle fleet's final resupply run to the space station might not sound sexy, but "it's one of the most important flights we've ever had." More than 8,000 pounds of supplies are going up to the station, including two tons' worth of critical spare parts. Those supplies will provide an additional six-month stockpile for space station operations, meaning that the astronauts will have enough supplies to see them through the end of 2012, Suffredini said. By that time, U.S. commercial transports such as SpaceX's Dragon should be part of the supply chain, along with Russian, Japanese and European supply ships.

• So far, all indications are that SpaceX will launch its next Dragon capsule on a Falcon 9 rocket by the end of this year, and have the capsule go all the way to a linkup with the space station. That demonstration would open the way for the beginning of SpaceX's resupply missions under a multibillion-dollar contract with NASA. However, Suffredini said the final decision on having the Dragon hook up with the station had not yet been made. "It's one thing to be done with hardware, it's another thing to be done with software," Suffredini said. SpaceX's work on the Dragon mission still had to go through NASA verification, and "that's going to take us till really close to the end of the year to get all that done," Suffredini said.

• Suffredini said he thought operating the U.S. segment of the space station as a national laboratory "is going to make a big difference" for commercial applications coming from space science. He mentioned the promise of creating new vaccines for salmonella and other infectious diseases, based on studies done in orbit. And he pointed out that the space station would be a cornerstone for NASA's presence in outer space. "It's not just the cornerstone, but it's the only thing from the standpoint of human spaceflight that NASA is operating," Suffredini said.

• Shannon said he was heartened to see how many veterans of the shuttle program were being taken on by other high-tech companies, in aerospace and in other fields. He said he's seen cases where former shuttle employees have been hired at one company, and then "come back and grab six of their friends."

• When one journalist noted that the parking lots and buildings at Johnson Space Center already seem emptier than they once were, Shannon acknowledged that NASA's facilities were indeed emptying out, with simulators and mockups of space hardware soon to be distributed to museums across the country. That can come as a "little bit of a shock," he admitted. But he said the space center was ready and waiting for the next chapter in NASA's history. "Let's fill it up with something else," he said. "Let's fill it up with what the next program is going to require."

Stay tuned for more from Johnson Space Center this week, and much more about the shuttle program's final mission next week.

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