CAPE CANAVERAL - NASA and United Space Alliance are working on ways to keep shuttle workers at Kennedy Space Center and elsewhere employed in the space program after the orbiters retire in 2010, top officials from the space agency and its private shuttle contractors told Congress on Wednesday.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said the spaceship that will replace the shuttle for flights to the International Space Station and the moon is being designed with an eye toward saving money.
"The new system must have lower fixed costs," Griffin said of the proposed Crew Exploration Vehicle in a hearing before a Senate oversight committee. "Lower fixed costs means a smaller work force."
However, Griffin and his contractor counterparts testified they already are studying how best to shift thousands of shuttle workers to jobs on the new spaceship or to opportunities on other projects related to NASA's new initiative to send astronauts to the moon and Mars.
The space agency and its contractors face a challenge in coming years as people working on the shuttle program see the end approaching and start worrying about their futures. Griffin and contractor officials said they are worried engineers, technicians and others will flee the program for job security, creating a shortage of skilled space workers just as the United States is trying to field a new vehicle and expand exploration.
"I appreciate the very difficult job you're going to have over the next five years to maintain all of those capabilities, while knowing there is a final date set" for the shuttle's retirement, said U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who represents thousands of space workers at Houston's Johnson Space Center.
Michael McCulley, a former astronaut who is chief executive officer of prime shuttle contractor United Space Alliance, illustrated his concern by telling a story from a recent chat with workers at the KSC cafeteria.
A young man, who moved from Pennsylvania to Florida specifically to work on the space program, told McCulley his family is wrestling with whether to stay here or take a possibly more secure job up north.
"He is in a very serious internal debate with his family," McCulley said. "We've had no problem at all with recruiting, but my folks are starting to think about what to do post-shuttle."
McCulley is concerned that he has few answers for them yet until NASA comes up with more definitive answers about the shuttle's retirement and the plans for a replacement. Recent announcements that the new administrator is speeding up development of the new ship so it's ready when the shuttles retire is welcome.
Both the agency and the companies said they are studying the handling of the recent retirement of the Titan 4 rocket, as well as the gap between the Apollo moon program and the shuttles' first mission, to learn how to help the people involved.
McCulley said Griffin's effort to define the future of the shuttle and plans for the replacement this year will help the company and the space agency prepare for the transition.
"I am sitting here with a great deal of uncertainty now," McCulley said. "I would anticipate that by the summer or fall, I will have a much better target."
Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office issued a report to Congress criticizing NASA's effort to date preparing to transition shuttle workers to future space programs. The report suggested that, if shuttle workers were driven away by uncertainty, the dearth of qualified workers near the program's end could pose a safety threat for later flights.
Griffin and McCulley pledged Wednesday to make sure that does not happen. McCulley said steps would be taken to plan for the transition so that "the last space shuttle flight is just as safe as the next space shuttle flight."
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