For as long as many of us can remember, the U.S. space
program has meant space shuttles taking people, research projects, and cargo from
Earth into orbit. The American space shuttle program began in 1981, years after
the final Apollo flight of 1975. But now the final countdown has begun. The
shuttle program has only 2 years left until its scheduled fleet-retirement date
of 2010. What does this mean for the U.S. space program and the
thousands of jobs it provides?
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
plans to replace the space shuttle program with Constellation, a spacecraft whose
first scheduled launch isn't until March 2015. Originally, the five-year span between
the end of the space shuttle and the start of Constellation was much smaller;
however, funding shortfalls have widened the gap. NASA plans to keep workers
busy with ground and flight tests of the new Orion capsule and Ares rocket
system, but this could prove difficult and expensive if the gap continues to grow.
Fortunately, NASA has done its homework to plan its projects
over the next few years. The space agency must overhaul several critical
facilities, dispose of billions of dollars of obsolete shuttle hardware, and
shift or eliminate thousands of jobs. Most of the changes will occur at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, but the
end of the space shuttle program will also cause changes at Johnson Space Center in Texas, Marshall Space Flight Center
in Alabama, and Stennis Space Center
The initial budget for NASA's Constellation Program was 60%
of what the space shuttle program cost in 2007. So will NASA's workforce
shrink, too? The numbers haven't been finalized yet, but it's estimated that
8000 contractor jobs may be eliminated in 2010. The majority of the job cuts
will be at Kennedy, where up to 80% of its current employees may be terminated
NASA has said that it wants to retain workers with essential
skills, but some of the know-how from the shuttle program isn't required for Constellation.
For example, consider the case of those workers who have been trained to repair
and replace the space shuttle's heat-resistant tiles. Their skills are needed
today, but a different heat shield will be used on the Constellation program's Orion
spacecraft. Also, a much smaller workforce will be required for ground
operation and spacecraft-processing for the new program.
Editors Note: Part 2 of this blog will run early next week