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In Tight-Money Times, Leaders At NASA Centers Find Ways To Cope

By | March 16, 2009

      GREENBELT, Md. — Even before President Obama releases his detailed federal government budget plan for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2009, leaders of NASA centers across the nation are learning how to do more with fewer people and less money.

      They described their coping strategies during a symposium on sustainable space exploration conducted by the American Astronautical Society at a hotel near Goddard Space Flight Center.

      For example, Ellen Ochoa, now deputy director of Johnson Space Center in Houston and a four-time astronaut with 978 hours in space, said that in addition to learning how to do more with fewer people and dollars, "I wouldn’t particularly recommend having a hurricane hit your center as a way to get infrastructure" improvements approved.

      She referred to Hurricane Rita, which in 2005 temporarily shut down her center, where Mission Control provides the link from Earth to the International Space Station orbiting overhead.

      Robert Lightfoot, deputy director of Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., said the problem of few young people being qualified engineering and science graduates is compounded by the fact that many NASA employees are nearing or beyond retirement age.

      At Marshall, "13 percent of our folks are eligible for retirement," he noted.

      For those who are on the payroll, another problem is keeping them there, he said. "You’ve got to give them something to work on" that is compelling, he said. That was a reference to the fact that the U.S. space shuttle fleet will stop flying next year, and the replacement Orion-Ares U.S. spaceship system won’t be ready to fly astronauts to space until 2015.

      For Janet Petro, deputy director of Kennedy Space Center, the problems she faces are multifaceted. For example, much of the KSC infrastructure is half a century old, dating from the dawn of the space age. Further, thousands of NASA and contractor personnel will be laid off as the space shuttle fleet stops flying, until Orion-Ares begins manned flights.

      "It’s a tremendous challenge as we transition to a new program," and a delicate dance must permit the shuttle fleet to phase out of using many KSC facilities that the Orion- Ares program soon will need.

      Some capabilities and facilities must be scaled back, so that "we had to make some tough decisions," she said. Sometimes, a decision in one area forced a decision elsewhere, such as when layoffs of thousands of employees mean that fewer medical exams have to be performed.

      Out of 138 laboratories, she said, 45 will be consolidated, and 50 will be closed. Out of 52 machine shops making hardware for space vehicles, 18 will close, while the 34 remaining open include some that will be downsized.

      She noted that a non-NASA organization, Space Florida, is attempting to attract commercial space operations to the Cape Canaveral area.

      Ray Lugo, deputy director at the Glenn Research Center in Ohio, said he, too, confronts a graying workforce, with one employee who has been plugging away at various jobs for more than 60 years.

      There is uncertainty, he said, with many workers wondering what the Obama administration will provide for space program funding, and viewing with dismay the crumbling U.S. economy, a recession that means many corporations don’t have the research funding they once enjoyed.

      Juggling issues with people, facilities and equipment is "becoming increasingly more difficult," he said.

      Gene Goldman, director of Stennis Space Center, said he confronts the twin challenges of aging infrastructure being operated by aging workers.

      Much of the Stennis infrastructure dates from decades ago during the Saturn program, and some 30 to 35 percent of the Stennis workforce "is able to retire" now, Goldman noted.

      He, too, had a hurricane problem when Hurricane Katrina, a Category Five storm, ripped through Louisiana.

      On top of that, there is "suffering" for many as the transition continues from space shuttles to the Orion-Ares program.

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