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NASA Chief Seeks Ways to Preserve Shuttle Workforce

CAPE CANAVERAL - NASA andUnited Space Alliance are working on ways to keep shuttle workers at KennedySpace Center and elsewhere employed in the space program after the orbitersretire in 2010, top officials from the space agency and its private shuttlecontractors told Congress on Wednesday.

NASA Administrator MichaelGriffin said the spaceship that will replace the shuttle for flights to theInternational Space Station and the moon is being designed with an eye towardsaving money.

"The new system musthave lower fixed costs," Griffin said of the proposed Crew ExplorationVehicle in a hearing before a Senate oversight committee. "Lower fixedcosts means a smaller work force."

However, Griffin and hiscontractor counterparts testified they already are studying how best to shiftthousands of shuttle workers to jobs on the new spaceship or to opportunitieson other projects related to NASA's new initiative to send astronauts to themoon and Mars.

The space agency and itscontractors face a challenge in coming years as people working on the shuttleprogram see the end approaching and start worrying about their futures. Griffinand contractor officials said they are worried engineers, technicians andothers will flee the program for job security, creating a shortage of skilledspace workers just as the United States is trying to field a new vehicle andexpand exploration.

"I appreciate the verydifficult job you're going to have over the next five years to maintain all ofthose capabilities, while knowing there is a final date set" for theshuttle's retirement, said U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, whorepresents thousands of space workers at Houston's Johnson Space Center.

Michael McCulley, a formerastronaut who is chief executive officer of prime shuttle contractor UnitedSpace Alliance, illustrated his concern by telling a story from a recent chatwith workers at the KSC cafeteria.

A young man, who moved fromPennsylvania to Florida specifically to work on the space program, toldMcCulley his family is wrestling with whether to stay here or take a possiblymore secure job up north.

"He is in a veryserious internal debate with his family," McCulley said. "We've hadno problem at all with recruiting, but my folks are starting to think aboutwhat to do post-shuttle."

McCulley is concerned thathe has few answers for them yet until NASA comes up with more definitiveanswers about the shuttle's retirement and the plans for a replacement. Recentannouncements that the new administrator is speeding up development of the newship so it's ready when the shuttles retire is welcome.

Both the agency and thecompanies said they are studying the handling of the recent retirement of theTitan 4 rocket, as well as the gap between the Apollo moon program and theshuttles' first mission, to learn how to help the people involved.

McCulley said Griffin'seffort to define the future of the shuttle and plans for the replacement thisyear will help the company and the space agency prepare for the transition.

"I am sitting herewith a great deal of uncertainty now," McCulley said. "I wouldanticipate that by the summer or fall, I will have a much better target."

Earlier this year, theGovernment Accountability Office issued a report to Congress criticizing NASA'seffort to date preparing to transition shuttle workers to future spaceprograms. The report suggested that, if shuttle workers were driven away byuncertainty, the dearth of qualified workers near the program's end could posea safety threat for later flights.

Griffin and McCulleypledged Wednesday to make sure that does not happen. McCulley said steps wouldbe taken to plan for the transition so that "the last space shuttle flightis just as safe as the next space shuttle flight."

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John Kelly

John Kelly is the director of data journalism for ABC-owned TV stations at Walt Disney Television. An investigative reporter and data journalist, John covered space exploration, NASA and aerospace as a reporter for Florida Today for 11 years, four of those on the Space Reporter beat. John earned a journalism degree from the University of Kentucky and wrote for the Shelbyville News and Associated Press before joining Florida Today's space team. In 2013, John joined the data investigation team at USA Today and became director of data journalism there in 2018 before joining Disney in 2019. John is a two-time winner of the Edward R. Murrow award in 2020 and 2021, won a Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2020 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting in 2017. You can follow John on Twitter.