Senator notes concerns over Shuttle/NASA

by Chris Bergin

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said history would not be allowed to repeat itself as NASA works to develop the next generation of spacecraft. The Texas Republican chaired a Senate subcommittee on May 18 in Washington.

Hutchison said learning from the mistakes from past projects to come out with the next generation of spacecraft is essential.

Her biggest concern is of a possible gap when the shuttle is scheduled to retire in 2010 and when the next space craft is ready to fly.

“We do not have the luxury of either time or resources to make another false start as we add the new dimension of the moon, Mars and beyond to this nation’s human space flight capability,” said Hutchison.

As of March, the shuttle program had compiled lessons learned from similar programs, such as the Air Force Titan IV program, to sustaining the shuttle force past the spacecraft’s retirement.

Allen Li, the director of the General Accountability Office’s Acquisition and Sourcing Management, said NASA has made “limited progress” in its planning efforts for sustaining the shuttle’s workforce through retirement.

“Unaddressed, such issues would likely lead to schedule delays and overstretched funding for both the space shuttle program and the agency,” said Li.

“Both (United Space Alliance, the shuttle’s prime contractor) and NASA have acknowledged that sustaining their workforces will be difficult as the space shuttle nears retirement, particularly if a career path beyond the shuttle’s retirement is not apparent to their employees.”

Besides the Titan IV, members of the space community are still smarting from the cancellation of the X-38, a crew rescue vehicle that would have been able to handle more than three station dwellers. The X-38 also would have gotten rid of the chore of rotating Soyuz space craft.

Almost $2 billion was invested in the X-38 when the plug was pulled on the nearly finished vehicle built at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and Dryden in 2002.

Money issues with the International Space Station caused funding for the X-38 to be yanked.
In his testimony, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin outlined the total equipment value of the space shuttle program as $12 billion and the total facilities of the program at $5.7 billion.

Beyond the money and budget numbers are the over 2,000 civil servants and 15,000 who work as prime contractors while another 3,000 work indirectly for the shuttle program across the country.

The workers have matured like the shuttles. In 2012, 33 percent of the workforce at Kennedy, Marshall and Johnson will be eligible for retirement. An estimated one-quarter of all shuttle workers at those three centers are 51 years old.

United Space Alliance is required “to prepare for sustaining its required workforce, including submitting a critical skills retention plan,” said Griffin.

“We must transition the space shuttle in a way that ensures continued safety in our ongoing operations, maximizes the efficiency with which we utilize our resources, respects the space shuttle workforce, and protects critical national capabilities that will be needed to support the Vision for Space Exploration,” he said.

In his prepared statement, Michael McCulley, president and CEO of United Space Alliance, said shuttle workers could be transitioned to Lockheed Martin or Boeing, which are owners of the joint venture.

“(United Space Alliance) has been successful in the past, placing employees at those companies and in assisting employees in transitioning to other space-related businesses,” he said.

“(The company’s) human capital systems are monitored continuously with special emphasis on critical skills required and addressing identified gaps in these skills as a result of attrition and retirements.”

McCulley said United Space Alliance was committed to President Bush’s Vision for Space and realizes that the shuttle era must be left behind to go back to the moon and onward to Mars.

“We understand that the retirement of three capable and space-worthy Space Shuttle orbiters is needed in order to move the Vision forward,” he said.

“Our exceptional workforce is committed to these goals and deserves our utmost consideration in the transition to a new system for space exploration.”

In addition, officials said that space exploration activities could slip as much as one year for each year that the space shuttle’s operations are extended because NASA’s progress with these activities relies on funding and assets that are expected to be transferred from the space shuttle program to other NASA programs.

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