Layoffs Continue as NASA Slows Moon Program Spending

Big Test Looms for NASA’s New Rocket
Artist concept of the Ares 1-X test launch, scheduled for summer 2009. (Image credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON ? NASA has advisedcontractors to anticipatereduced spending on the moon-bound Constellation program it plans toterminate,prompting a new round of contractor layoffs.

The U.S. space agency is bound by a2010 law to continuefunding all Constellation-relatedcontracts until Congress enacts new appropriationslegislation approvingthe termination or restructuring of the program.

Although the U.S. government's 2011budget year began Oct.1, lawmakers failed to pass any 2011 appropriations bills beforeleavingWashington last month until mid-November, leaving NASA and the rest ofthefederal government to operate through Dec. 3 under a stopgap measurecalled acontinuing resolution that funds agencies at no greater than 2010spendinglevels.

For NASA, that means making do for atleast the next eightweeks with 1.5 percent less than the $19 billion the White House hasbudgetedfor the agency for 2011. [NASA:Moon Exploration Is Not Dead]

Spending on Constellation, whichincludes development of theAres I rocket and Orioncrew capsule, is expected to decline as much as 25 percentfor the twomonths ahead, according to NASA spokesman Michael Braukus.

In an Oct. 1 e-mail Braukus said NASAplans to immediatelyreduce its Constellation spending from an average rate of $282 millionper monthdown to $212 million per month. If Congress fails to enact a 2011budget whenit returns in November and instead extends the continuing resolutionbeyondDec. 3, "that amount will go lower," Braukus said.

Two years ago, when Constellation wasstill going strong,NASA contractors were anticipating that spending on the program wouldhaveramped up to an average of $540 million per month by now.

Much of that money would have gonetoward retaining workersnow facing layoffs as the space shuttle heads toward retirement and theassembly phase of the InternationalSpace Station program nears completion.

As NASA prepares to graduallydiminish spending on theprogram, some Constellation contractors are responding with pink slips.Ares Iprime contractor Alliant TechSystems, for example, said Oct. 1 it wouldlay offabout 300 Ares I workers in Utah this month. [NASA'sAres I Rocket Test]

Robert Lightfoot, the director ofNASA's Marshall SpaceFlight Center in Huntsville, Ala., told local reporters Oct. 5 heexpectsbetween 150 and 250 Constellation contractors to lose their jobs "overthis next short term," according to Marshall spokeswoman JenniferStanfield .

A NASA official told Space News, partner, thatthe bulk of those layoffs were expected to hit workers associated withaConstellation support contract held by Tullahoma, Tenn.-based JacobsTechnology. Huntsville's NBC television affiliate, WAFF 48, reportedOct. 5that about 175 Jacobs contractors are expected to receive layoffnotices Oct.7.

Jacobs spokeswoman Michelle Jones wasunavailable Oct. 6 tocomment on the layoffs, according to her office.

Braukus told Space News Oct. 5 thatNASA's monthlyexpenditures on Constellation under the continuing resolution couldexceed $212million, noting that NASA is "looking at options for a two-month burnratethat will minimize additional layoffs."

But industry sources say even if NASAopts to boost themonthly spending for Constellation, the additional funding would cometoo lateto stem job losses associated with the marked-for-termination program.

Even before Obama sent Congress a2011 budget plan inFebruary calling for the cancellation of Constellation, lawmakers hadpassed ameasure to prevent NASA from terminating the effort until a subsequentappropriations bill is signed into law.

Passage of a 2010 NASAauthorization bill last month provides some direction for theagency,calling for funds to continue development of an Orion-like capsule fordeepspace missions while requiring the agency to leverage its investmentsin thespace shuttle, Orion and Ares I as it moves out on development of a newspacetransportation system.

Dale Thomas, Constellation manager atNASA's Johnson SpaceCenter in Houston, said the program is conducting programmatic triageas itcontinues to fund elements that could be used in the development of anewheavy-lift launch vehicle and deep space crew capsule.

"We are working very hard with[NASA's ExplorationSystems Mission Directorate in Washington] to put all the emphasis onthecontent of Constellation that plays forward to the programs that willbefunctioning per the authorization," Thomas said in an Oct. 5 interview.

For example, NASA will complete anadvanced manufacturingdemonstration of the Ares J-2X upper-stage engine nozzle extensionbefore theend of the year, at which point the project will be shelved, Thomassaid. Inaddition, NASA is expected to complete work on the A-3 engine teststand atStennis Space Center in Mississippi, but the agency is not planning tospendConstellation funds to do it.

"Constellation is just trying to savethat test standbecause we don't need it to fire the engine unless we're using thatnozzleextension," he said. "But Stennis is trying to find other fundingsources to finish it up. It won't get finished with Constellationfunding."

While the three-year authorizationbill provides generalpolicy guidance to the agency and sets funding levels for congressionalappropriators to consider when shaping annual spending bills, itprovides noactual money.

To date neither chamber has approveda 2011 spending billfor NASA, though the House Appropriations commerce, justice, sciencesubcommittee adopteda placeholder bill that largely follows Obama's $19 billionrequest for theagency while fencing off spending on exploration programs until anauthorization is enacted.

The SenateAppropriations Committee came closer to approving a bill inJuly with a $19billion proposal that largely mirrors what Senate authorizers outlinedin theirnewly enacted bill. But the measure has yet to pass the full Senate,whichleaves NASA in limbo until lawmakers return from mid-term elections inNovember.

The continuing resolution, which thepresident signed intolaw Sept. 30, requires the agency to fund Ares and Orion at levels nottoexceed those enacted in 2010. However, it does not set a clear "floor"for such funding, allowing the agency to slow spending on Constellationprojects until the new appropriation provides tacit authority toterminatethem.

Accordingly, Braukus said, theConstellation program gavethe Ares and Orion projects new spending targets that fall somewherebetweenlevels in the Senate Appropriations Committee's draft 2011 spendingbill andConstellation funding allocated from last year's appropriation.

"Under this spend-rate plan, theConstellation Programhas communicated these and other funding levels to the Constellationprojects,"Braukus said, adding that the program is unable to break out fundinglevelsalong project lines. "As such, the projects have been working withtheircontractors to negotiate Constellation content under this morerestrictivespend plan," he said.

This article was provided bySpaceNews, dedicated tocovering all aspects of the space industry.

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SpaceNews Staff Writer

Amy Klamper is a space reporter and former staff writer for the space industry news publication SpaceNews. From 2004 to 2010, Amy covered U.S. space policy, NASA and space industry professionals for SpaceNews. Her stories included profiles on major players in the space industry, space policy work in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, as well as national policy set by the White House.