NASA’s New Marching Orders Favor States Hit by Moon Program’s Loss
NASA chief Charles Bolden talks with other mission managers in Firing Room Four of the Launch Control Center as they monitor the countdown of the launch of the space shuttle Endeavour and the start of the STS-130 mission at NASA Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Monday Feb. 8, 2010.
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON ? The new roles assigned to NASA?s field centers by space agency chief Charles Bolden this week favor facilities in states likely to lose thousands of jobs if Congress approves the agency?s plan to cancel the Constellation program, a 5-year-old effort to replace the space shuttle with new rockets and spacecraft optimized for the Moon.

Bolden?s Thursday announcement came one week before U.S. President Barack Obama is set to deliver a ?major space policy speech? at the agency?s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which stands to lose thousands of jobs when the space shuttle is retired later this year. But while the new program assignments could pump billions of dollars into Florida and other states that were counting on Constellation to stem post-shuttle job losses, Bolden said it is too soon to know how many aerospace workers would find employment under Obama?s plan.

?We have more money, and that would say that you have more jobs,? Bolden told reporters during a teleconference. Bolden said the agency has not conducted an independent assessment of estimated job growth under Obama?s plan, but correlated an increase in NASA?s contractor work force to the president?s proposed $6 billion funding boost for NASA over the next five years. ?If we use the standard measure for future jobs as money, then yes, there should be more jobs.?

Obama?s $19 billion NASA budget request would increase the agency?s top-line spending by 1.5 percent next year followed by three years of better-than-inflation boosts.

While that translates to $1.6 billion more for NASA between 2010 and 2013 than the previous administration proposed, the part of the agency in charge of Constellation ? the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate ? would see its budget shrink by $5.2 billion compared with previous plans.

Although Obama?s plan has come under bipartisan fire from Capitol Hill, Bolden said if Congress approves his agency?s 2011 spending plan, NASA would stand up a new program office at Kennedy to manage $5.8 billion aimed at fostering development of commercial space taxis over the next five years. In addition, Kennedy would get $2.3 billion over the next five years for infrastructure improvements to the Eastern Range launch complex.

Houston-based Johnson Space Center, which currently has overall responsibility for the Constellation program, could manage a $6 billion flagship technology demonstration program focused on projects costing up to $1 billion. NASA intends to initiate demos next year focused on in-orbit propellant transfer, inflatable space modules, and rendezvous and docking. NASA?s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., which stands to lose its lead role on the Ares rockets and Altair lunar lander programs, would get four new program offices, including one in charge of a $3.1 billion initiative to research and develop heavy-lift and other rocket propulsion technologies.

Dale Ketcham, director of the Spaceport Research and Technology Institute at the University of Central Florida, said despite the loss of Constellation, NASA?s new direction could still generate jobs for Florida, Alabama and Texas.

?Government contractors are generally going to locate their commercial activity where the procurement authority exists,? Ketcham told Space News April 8. ?If it becomes clear that this is where the vast majority of the long-term future of activity is going to occur in the U.S., then the marketplace will usually respond to where it?s cost effective to do business.?

Some private space firms are already increasing their presence near the U.S. Air Force?s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, where Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is planning the inaugural launch of its new Falcon 9 medium-lift rocket in May. Lawrence Williams, SpaceX vice president of strategic relations, said the company has big plans for the state, including possibly refurbishing the first stage of the Falcon 9 and its Dragon space capsule there.

?It?s something we?re looking at,? Williams said April 8.

Williams described the company?s growth in the state as ?very aggressive? and said the trend is likely to continue if NASA stands up a commercial crew program office at Kennedy.

?There are a lot of factors about where we put our facilities, but the customer is certainly one of them, and one of the primary reasons SpaceX chose to launch out of the Cape is because both NASA and the Air Force are there,? Williams said.

In addition to attracting commercial space companies to Florida, Ketcham said, the plan to give Kennedy acquisition authority over commercial crew programs diversifies the center?s portfolio.

?This will enable us to move forward where KSC?s business model is not just [launch] operations but also research-and-development and technology components, so our business case is broadened and we?re not hammered again in the future,? he said.

But Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.), a staunch critic of the new direction, was underwhelmed by NASA?s program office assignments.

?There is really nothing new in today?s announcement,? Posey said in an April 8 statement to Space News.

Posey questioned why the program office assignments overlap. For example, while NASA?s new commercial crew program office would go to Kennedy, program oversight would be shared with a deputy program manager at Johnson.

?Do they expect each center to fall for that?? Posey asked.

During the April 8 teleconference, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said the NASA assignments overlap in order to build on existing strengths at each field center.

?So keep in mind that even though a program office is based at one center, the work of each program is often a NASA-wide effort,? she said.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), another outspoken critic of the Obama proposal, said despite shifting $7 billion in new program office funds to Marshall Space Flight Center, the new work assignments are nothing more than ?a plan to rearrange NASA bureaucracy.?

?Now that the Administration has finally released its planned program assignments, it is clear that this is the end of America?s leadership in space,? Shelby said in an April 8 statement to Space News.

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) said the program assignments don?t make up for the loss of Constellation.

?I still firmly believe that the Obama proposal is the wrong direction for NASA?s spaceflight program because no clear direction is the wrong direction,? he said in an Friday statement.

Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) said in Thursday statement that Bolden had called before the teleconference to inform him Johnson would continue to be the home of mission control for human spaceflight.

?I appreciate that assurance, but the fact remains that this budget proposal still contains no options for human spaceflight, so what missions will [Johnson] control?? Olson asked, adding he plans to lobby fellow lawmakers to support Constellation.

Some Florida lawmakers, including Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D), welcomed NASA?s decision to locate the Commercial Crew Development Office at Kennedy but said they would like to see NASA do more.

?NASA still needs to evaluate the continuation of the shuttle program to fully service and support the international space station and still needs a clearly defined vision for the future of human spaceflight with set goals, timelines and a next-generation NASA-led vehicle,? Kosmas said in an April 8 statement to Space News.