NASA prepares for the beginning of the end of the shuttle era

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (MCT) — With only three years remaining before the space-shuttle fleet’s planned retirement, NASA managers have begun tackling the thorny issues that will dictate the program’s end.

Critical facilities must be overhauled to support planned human missions to the moon. Billions of dollars’ worth of obsolete shuttle hardware must be disposed of. And, most difficult of all, thousands of jobs must be shifted or eliminated as the shuttle era ends and the new Constellation project takes off.

“Because it touches so many buildings and pieces of equipment and — most important of all — people, it requires a lot of technical management and attention every day,” said Joel Kearns, transition manager for NASA’s space-operations division at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “It’s a really big retirement and closeout.”

Nowhere will the changes be felt more keenly than at Kennedy Space Center, which will see a transformation of its work force, facilities and operations. However, the changes also will impact at least three other NASA field centers that play a major role in sending humans to space: Johnson Space Center in Houston; Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.; and Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss.

Today, there are about 13,000 full-time workers at KSC, consisting of roughly 11,000 contractors and 2,000 government employees. Most of them work on the shuttle.

One of NASA’s biggest challenges is to avoid an early exodus of critically skilled employees as the program winds down.

“We have a real challenge to make sure that the people who work so hard at KSC and at the support centers around KSC stay all the way until the end, because it’s only with the right skilled people that we can be sure we can fly safe,” Kearns said.

Moving workers from shuttle operations to the Constellation programs is another challenge.

Though NASA wants to retain workers with essential skills, many abilities required in today’s shuttle program will not be needed to prepare the new Orion spacecraft for flight. An example is the dozens of workers who repair and replace the heat-resistant tiles that protect the shuttle during its fiery re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere. The Orion capsule will feature a different type of heat shield.

NASA and its shuttle contractors plan to retrain as many workers as possible and move them into new jobs. However, it’s clear that a significantly smaller work force will be employed in ground operations and spacecraft processing for the new Constellation program.

The initial target was to shrink Constellation’s budget for operations and sustaining engineering to 60 percent of what it cost the shuttle program in 2007. NASA and its shuttle contractors already have crunched the resulting work-force numbers, but the final totals haven’t been decided on. Some estimates have projected that a third of KSC’s current workers could be affected.

Another personnel challenge will be managing the gap between the shuttle and Constellation programs. Many workers were displaced and their skills were lost between the final Apollo flight in July 1975 and the first shuttle mission in April 1981. NASA wants to avoid a repeat.

The expected gap between the shuttle’s planned retirement in September 2010 and the Constellation program’s first operational launch in March 2015 has ballooned to more than four years because of funding shortfalls in Congress. NASA hopes to keep workers busy during the gap with ground and flight tests of the new Orion capsule and Ares rocket systems.

“We’re working it (the workforce issue) very hard,” said LeRoy Cain, a senior shuttle manager at KSC who is a leader of the transition effort. “I see the focus on it getting even more intense as time goes on.”

Other NASA centers that support the shuttle also are expected to downsize some of their programs. Technical laboratories at Marshall and Stennis could lose jobs, according to NASA planning documents obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.

The astronaut corps at Johnson will be affected as well. There are two types of astronauts: military personnel on assignment from their branches of the armed services and civil servants employed by NASA. Both groups could shrink.

As the shuttle nears retirement, the number of civil-servant astronauts is projected to drop from 99 in 2009 to 74 in 2011 — a cut of about one-fourth — according to a December NASA planning summary. The majority would be assigned to the space-station program, with about two dozen working in the Constellation project.

Decisions affecting billions of dollars’ worth of facilities and hardware are equally complex.

One of NASA’s three remaining space-shuttle orbiters, Atlantis, tentatively is scheduled to be mothballed after a mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope in September 2008. Atlantis is expected to remain in its KSC hangar through the end of the program in case the ship or its parts are needed.

“We’ve got lots of hardware on there that we can use as we finish out,” said Robert Lightfoot, manager of the space-shuttle-propulsion office at Marshall who is helping to lead the transition effort. “We certainly aren’t going to send it away to a museum site until we’re convinced that we don’t need the parts anymore.”

Under current plans, sister ships Discovery and Endeavour will complete the program’s 17 to 19 remaining missions by September 2010. No final decisions have been made on where the orbiters will wind up afterward, although the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum is expected to take possession of at least one.

With fewer astronauts and changing responsibilities, NASA’s fleet of T-38 training jets likely will shrink as well. Several options are being considered to dispose of a vast array of shuttle hardware no longer needed to support the Constellation program.

Some items could be stored long-term in a desert boneyard used by the Defense Department and NASA at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz. Other possibilities include destroying unneeded hardware and disposing of it, or auctioning it to the highest bidder.

“We’re just going to use the normal disposition processes that are in place,” said Loraine Schafer, manager of the space shuttle’s sustainment and transition office at KSC. “The volume of the shuttle hardware that we’re going to be getting rid of at the end of the program is so great that we’re focusing on trying to do things upfront” to avoid overwhelming the system.

Other hardware that is retained by the Constellation program, along with several major facilities, must be modified. Changes to KSC’s storied Operations and Checkout Building already are under way to prepare the site for final assembly of the Orion capsule that will become America’s next manned spacecraft.

The hand-over of several other assets to the Constellation program has been delayed by NASA’s decision to plan a possible shuttle rescue flight in case something goes wrong with next year’s mission to service Hubble. The Hubble flight is the only remaining mission not headed to the space station, where astronauts could seek safe haven if something happened to their ship.

To make sure a rescue shuttle could be poised for a timely liftoff, NASA has delayed from this year to October 2008 the transfer to Constellation of KSC’s Launch Pad 39B. Also affected are one of the shuttle’s mobile launch platforms and one of the work bays in KSC’s mammoth Vehicle Assembly Building. The delays are not expected to postpone plans for the first test flight of the new Ares booster in 2009.

Facilities at other NASA centers, including the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at Johnson where spacewalkers train, also are being looked at to determine whether they fit into future plans. Lightfoot said all of the changes make it an interesting time to work at NASA.

“For us, the shuttle program ending means the beginning of the next era of space exploration,” Lightfoot said. “This isn’t an end; this is a beginning, and that’s pretty exciting.”