NASA Future Uncertain as Lockheed Ends Shuttle Tank Production

As Lockheed closes the shuttle external tank plant, the Senate passes a bill that will end NASA's Constellation program.

After 37 years and 136 tanks constructed, Lockheed Martin announced the decision to end production of the space shuttle external tank at the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. The final tank arrived at Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 27, ending a production program that began with contract award on Sept. 5, 1973. Two shuttle launches remain in the program--on Nov. 1 and Feb. 26, 2011 next year.

"The space shuttle has provided a pathway for America's leadership in space exploration," said Manny Zulueta, Lockheed Martin vice president and Michould site executive. "Working alongside NASA on the external tank has been a gratifying and historic experience for our employees."

With the end of ET production, Lockheed announced workforce reductions have been taking place as "discrete elements" of work have concluded. On Jan. 1, 2010, Lockheed employed 1,438 employees at the Michoud Assembly Facility. The current workforce stands at approximately 600, according to a company release. "The majority of that number includes employees working on the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle program and those who have launch and landing responsibility for the final space shuttle launches," a company statement explained.

In 1979, the company rolled out the first ET, termed the "Heavyweight" version, which weighed in at 76,000 pounds. The first Lightweight Tank, the ET-8, weighing in at a leaner 66,000 pounds, followed three years later. In June 1998, the company launched a shuttle sporting the ET-96, the first Super Lightweight Tank, weighing 58,500 pounds.

The space agency will also be forced to cancel its ambitious "Constellation" program in the wake of a bill passed by the Senate this week. The bill, which will be sent to President Obama to sign, authorizes $58 billion to NASA over the next three years. The NASA authorization bill, S. 3729, also allows the space agency to fly one more shuttle mission than the last two currently planned, and directs NASA to begin work on a heavy-lift rocket that could launch an expedition to an asteroid or to Mars.

NASA also awarded a contract to Hamilton Sundstrand Space Systems International of Houston for spacesuit support used on the space shuttle and the International Space Station. The cost-plus-award-fee contract, known as the Extravehicular Space Operations Contract, has a maximum value of $728.9 million. Under the contract, Hamilton Sundstrand and its subcontractors will perform engineering management for hardware systems used in spacewalks, supporting enhancements, ensuring flight and spacewalk readiness, providing safety and mission assurance, meeting flight milestones and achieving mission goals.

The space agency exercised the base contract, valued at $315.5 million, for work performed Oct. 1, 2010, through Sept. 30, 2015, and a one-year option of $8.6 million specifically for shuttle mission support beginning Oct. 1, 2010. In all, there are two, one-year options for space shuttle extravehicular activity support Oct. 1, 2010, through Sept. 30, 2012. There are five, one-year options available for space station work Oct. 1, 2015, through Sept. 30, 2020. "This action also includes an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity portion that is not to exceed $90 million and a $140,000 fixed-price, 30-day phase-in period," a NASA release said.