CAPE CANAVERAL - U.S. astronauts will launch to the moon on sleek, single, shuttle booster rockets and the first new upper-stage rocket this country has developed in more than a decade, NASA and the Pentagon have told the White House.
Lunar landers and other
gear needed for extended visits to the moon will be lofted by gargantuan
launchers as big as the
Apollo-era Saturn 5, the most powerful rockets ever flown.
The new moon rockets, cobbled together primarily from proven shuttle components, still will blast off from Kennedy Space Center. But the transition from the shuttle to moon missions will change the face of the Brevard County spaceport.
Landmark facilities such as the hangars where the orbiters are readied for flight likely will be shuttered as the orbiters retire in 2010. NASA no longer will need the KSC runway for shuttle landings or the factory where workers hand-craft heat-shielding tiles and blankets.
KSC's 14,500-person work force will shrink by as much as one-third in the next decade. But NASA and its contractors hope attrition will reduce layoffs. About one-third of shuttle workers are old enough to retire by 2011.
In speeches this year, KSC director Jim Kennedy has speculated KSC employment could drop to as low as 10,000, but he would not comment on the employment picture for this article.
"You've got to understand that people are nervous. It's always uneasy when the future is uncertain," said John Elbon, vice president and International Space Station program manager for The Boeing Co.
The angst is deeply rooted, according to worker surveys conducted in February 2004 by shuttle prime contract United Space Alliance, which employs more than 10,000 people combined at KSC and in Houston.
"The number one issue
raised by the work force -- the number
one concern -- was their future, and that was one month after the president talked about the exploration initiative," said USA chief operating officer Brewster Shaw, a former astronaut.
"So it's clearly on their minds, and it's been on their minds for a long time."
Shaw, Elbon and others are quick to note that until the January 2004 unveiling of President Bush's plan to send astronauts back to the moon and beyond, NASA and its contractors had no sure future beyond the shuttle and space station.
NASA's decision to base new moon rockets on shuttle solid rocket boosters, engines and external tanks and to continue to launch U.S. human space missions here solidifies the future of KSC and the bulk of the space jobs based here for decades to come.
"There's always a sense of anxiety with changes like this," said another ex-astronaut, Charles Precourt, vice president of strategic programs, strategy and business development for booster-maker ATK Thiokol.
"But I think there is going to be plenty of work to go around."
NASA's rocket decision, expected to be announced next month, is outlined in an Aug. 5 letter to John Marburger, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
"NASA will initiate development of a Crew Launch Vehicle derived from space shuttle solid rocket boosters with a new upper stage for human spaceflight," said the letter, signed by NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and the Pentagon's top space official, ex-astronaut Ron Sega.
The so-called "single stick" rocket could be ready to launch a proposed Crew Exploration Vehicle by 2011, minimizing the gap in the country's ability to get people into space after the orbiters retire.
Griffin and Sega also said NASA will field a heavy-lift launcher rivaling Saturn 5 moon rockets in sheer power and payload capability.
"NASA then plans to develop a new 100-metric-ton-class launch vehicle derived from existing capabilities with the space shuttle external tanks and solid rocket boosters for future missions to the moon," the letter said.
Industry studies indicate its first flight could be as early as 2014.
People and cargo would launch separately, hook up in Earth orbit, then journey together to the moon. The White House has not given final go-ahead for the two new rockets. A decision is expected next month.
NASA and its contractors have spent almost two years studying the pros and cons of various rocket ideas. The two best options: Modify the Delta 4 or Atlas 5 rockets developed for the military or use combinations of proven shuttle engines, boosters and fuel tanks to make new launchers.
Study after study came to the same conclusion: Shuttle-based systems could fly sooner, safer and for less money than the military's rockets.
"I think that's right if we get started soon. Time's a-wasting," Precourt said. "It appears they're getting close to a decision here. It's still reasonable, given that we could be using components in place today and you could fly a test flight within a couple of years without too much trouble."
NASA and its four biggest shuttle contractors -- USA, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and ATK Thiokol -- understand that the new system has to cost far less to operate than the shuttles. A July study by NASA and its contractors says eliminating the high-maintenance shuttle orbiters would "reduce operations costs in both facilities and work force."
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