NASA Plots Post-Shuttle Program, Eyes Job Cuts

Massive job cuts and an uncertain future for manned spaceflight at NASA loom as the last shuttle launch nears.

While NASA prepares for the last launch of its space shuttle program with Atlantis' liftoff, the space agency is at a crossroads and its employees face looming job cuts as the program winds to a close.

As NASA looks to private firms to help lead the next phase of manned space exploration, Program Manager John Shannon told the Houston Chronicle that NASA is down to 5,500 contractor employees and 1,200 civil servants working on the shuttle, with a layoff on the horizon after the final launch. "It's tough to break up a team that has performed so well for so long," he told the paper.

In addition, after 37 years and 136 tanks constructed, Lockheed Martin announced the decision to end production of the space shuttle external tank (ET) in October 2010 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 a contract award on Sept. 5, 1973.

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.

The agency's inspector general, Paul Martin, has expressed concern over NASA's ability to get astronauts to the International Space Station, though NASA has contracted for seats aboard Russian Soyuz rockets to ferry people to the space station until at least June 2016. In a 52-page report, Martin said the lack of mandatory compliance with NASA's requirements presents some risk that differences between partner designs and agency requirements could occur-a critique of NASA's plan to encourage private corporations to aid in the design and development of space-bound rockets.

Atlantis' last launch is currently scheduled for July 8. During the 12-day mission to the ISS, Atlantis and its crew will deliver the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module containing supplies and spare parts for the space station and its crew. The mission will fly the RRM (Robotic Refueling Mission), an experiment designed to demonstrate and test the tools, technologies and techniques needed to robotically refuel satellites in space, even satellites not designed to be serviced. The crew also will return an ammonia pump that recently failed on the station. Engineers want to understand why the pump failed and improve designs for future spacecraft.

Technicians at NASA Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A expect to complete work to close out space shuttle Atlantis' aft section. Teams are not working on any issues that could prevent the start of the launch countdown on Tuesday, July 5. At NASA's Johnson Space Center, the STS-135 astronauts will perform a final ascent simulation today before next week's launch. The crew is set to arrive at Kennedy's Shuttle Landing Facility on Monday, July 4.