More than 1,300 space shuttle workers received layoff notices this week from United Space Alliance ? a NASA contractor that is cutting 15 percent of its 8,100-person workforce ahead of the shuttle fleet's retirement next year.
Layoff notices were issued to 1,394 USA employees in all, company spokesperson Kari Fluegel told SPACE.com. ?The layoffs take effect Oct.? 1 and were announced earlier this month by USA officials.
?Our workforce has known for several years that the Space Shuttle Program has been scheduled to end, but layoffs are always difficult for everyone involved,? said Virginia Barnes, USA president and chief executive, said in a July 6 statement. ?We are committed to making this transition as smooth as possible.?
Shuttle program ending
The Houston-based United Space Alliance is a partnership between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin that has operated the space shuttle fleet for NASA since 1995.
Fluegel said 902 layoff notices were issued to USA workers in Florida, which is home to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral that serves as both launch site and home port for the agency's three shuttles. Another 478 layoffs were issued for Texas, which is home to NASA's shuttle mission operations, with 14 more in Alabama, where NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center is based.
About one-third of those recieving layoffs in each division nominated themselves for the cutbacks, Fluegel said.
NASA's space shuttle fleet is set to retire next year after 30 years of launching astronauts into low-Earth orbit. The shuttles began flying in 1981 and have flown on 132 missions so far.
Two final shuttle missions are currently scheduled (in November and February, respectively) to complete the International Space Station, which has been under construction since 1998 by a consortium of 16 countries. Congress is discussing the possible addition on a third and final shuttle mission. If approved, that extra flight would likely launch next summer, NASA officials have said.
Fluegel said that if the extra shuttle flight is approved, it will not affect the impending Oct. 1 layoffs. But there could be repercussions for more layoffs ahead.
"This plan wouldn't be affected at all, but it would affect the timing, obviously, of when we would do layoffs, and how we'd do layoffs, next year," Fluegel said.
Debate on commercial spaceships
NASA is retiring its three space shuttles (Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour) to make way for a new plan that aims to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, and then on to Mars. That new plan replaces the agency's previous Constellation program, which sought to return astronauts to the moon in the 2020s.
President Barack Obama proposed cancelling the Constellation program, which included new rockets and spacecraft to launch astronauts. That plan would set aside $6 billion over five years to support the development of new commercial spaceships that could ferry astronauts into space.
Draft NASA authorization bills under review in both the Senate and House of Representatives, however, would cut the amount for commercial crew services, if approved.
NASA's next space shuttle to fly will be Discovery, which is slated to launch Nov. 1 to deliver a storage room and robot assistant called Robonaut 2 to the $100 billion International Space Station.
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