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Griffin Sees Several Thousand Space Jobs Lost In Florida, Louisiana

By | March 3, 2008

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      "At least several thousand" space jobs will be lost at Kennedy Space Center in Florida starting around 2011, and perhaps 1,300 or so will be lost at the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana because the space shuttle fleet will cease flying in October 2010, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said.

      Those will be contractor personnel.

      It is too soon to know precisely just how many people will lose their jobs, Griffin told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee space, aeronautics and related sciences subcommittee.

      While NASA later this month will provide a congressionally-mandated estimate of job losses, at this point, those figures "will be very uncertain," Griffin cautioned.

      At Kennedy, there will be "at least several thousands" of jobs that will disappear and won’t return, when the shuttle stops flying in 2010, and the United States has no transportation system, even to low Earth orbit, until 2015, when the next-generation Orion-Ares spacecraft system begins manned flights.

      At Michoud, which produces such items as the external fuel tanks for space shuttles, some 1,900 jobs currently will shrink to 500 to 600, he said.

      And this loss of jobs will mean a concomitant loss of U.S. space brainpower and capability, Griffin said. The end of the shuttle flights program will mean both "a displacement of lives and a displacement of skills," he said.

      He made clear that many of the jobs lost will be gone forever, saying that "we will never use as many people as" the space shuttle launching program, once it is abandoned. The shuttle is being retired permanently, and is not being replaced with a program providing as many jobs, he explained.

      The United States previously suffered a debilitating brain drain when the Apollo program ceased, and NASA entered years in which it had no space flight capability until the shuttles began flying.

      Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the subcommittee chairman, voiced repeated concern at the impending job losses in Florida and Louisiana during the years when the United States has no manned space flights. "We don’t want to go through what we went through" in the bare-cupboard years between Apollo and the shuttle program, Nelson said. Those were "rough times for folks back home," he said, noting that he and Griffin have been discussing the problem privately for some time now. The gap and loss of jobs is "an enormous concern to me," Nelson said.

      Similarly, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) lamented the loss of jobs at Michoud. Vitter said shutting down the shuttle program will carry a bitter cost, with "a loss of workforce, a loss of skills," with employees leaving who "can’t be immediately or easily or cheaply replaced."

      He also noted the incalculable cost to the United States of losing prestige by losing its space program, having no manned space missions at a time when Russia, China and others are sending their people into space.

      Nelson asked whether any future private, commercial spaceships might launch from Florida.

      NASA just offered to provide $170 million of seed money to Orbital Sciences Corp. [ORB] to spur it to develop a private space transportation vehicle. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008.)

      But Orbital will launch from Wallops Island, Va., rather than from Kennedy.

      Asked about that, Griffin said that is a private business decision that Orbital made, one NASA didn’t discuss with the firm.

      Nelson asked pointedly whether other NASA facilities aside from Kennedy and Michoud will "share the pain" of losing jobs. Griffin said he couldn’t say with precision what employment effects will be at other installations, but some may have little or no jobs losses.

      Griffin made clear that he wasn’t at the helm of NASA when the decision was made to create the gap, and he isn’t happy with the prospect of a half-decade without NASA space flights. "We are looking at a substantial period of dependency on the Russians," he said.

      He termed the gap "my greatest concern and my greatest regret." But that said, he made clear, the gap exists and must be confronted.

      Not flying the shuttles doesn’t leave the United States with no costs, lawmakers made clear. Rather, the United States will have to pay for costs of personnel disruption.

      Russia: Reliable?

      And Uncle Sam also may have to plunk down a hefty $2 billion to buy space transportation services from an increasingly hostile Russia.

      "We will spend in the neighborhood of $2 billion on Russian hardware," Griffin said.

      A contract with the Russians will have to be executed by April next year, to give Russia time to assemble spacecraft needed in 2012 and later, Griffin said.

      That is causing anguish among many lawmakers.

      Russia not only will have the United States over a barrel, with NASA dependent on Moscow to transport U.S. astronauts and cargo to and from the International Space Station for half a decade, Russia also has other means of leverage over the United States, such as in energy pipelines it controls, Nelson said.

      Russia has "got a major chain to yank," he said.

      Further, while buying space transport missions from Russia is estimated now to total $2 billion during the gap between the shuttle program and Orion-Ares, it might be much more, since Russia at that time may be in a monopoly position and able to gouge the United States on launch prices. That monopoly position "dramatically increases their bargaining power," Vitter said.

      Costs per launch already have risen over many years, he added.

      Vitter said the United States should accelerate the start of the manned Orion-Ares flights from 2015 back to some earlier point, and/or accelerate development of private commercial orbital transportation services, or COTS.

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