NASA jobs slashed as shuttle fleet is retired

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – Hundreds of jobs are to go as NASA prepares to retire its space shuttle fleet next year.

Over the next five months, 900 manufacturing jobs are to go. The first 160 layoff notices go out today, mainly to contractors producing the space shuttle fuel tanks outside New Orleans and the shuttle solid rocket boosters in Utah. The prime contractors for these are Lockheed Martin, which makes the solid fuel tanks, and ATK Thiokol, which builds solid fuel boosters. Some people will be transferred to other projects.

The three shuttles have just eight more flights to go between them, to finish equipping the International Space Station and give the Hubble Space Telescope a final servicing. Shuttle Atlantis will lift off on May 11 for its 11-day mission to Hubble.

Back in the 1990s, NASA’s contractor workforce rose as high as 24,000, but now stands at about 13,800. About 1,600 civil service jobs remain across NASA, and plenty of people will still be needed to continue launching and running the shuttles. But as many as 6,500 jobs may go when they stop flying, with the first Kennedy Space Centre jobs expected to go as early as October.

Last year, Congress asked NASA to take no action to shut down the shuttle program until now, just in case Barack Obama wanted to postpone the planned retirement of the fleet in September 2010. But with Obama’s first budget announcement in February, it was clear that he planned to stick with the 2010 date.

More jobs will be created for the shuttle’s replacement, the Ares I rocket and Orion capsule. Its first launch is planned for March 2015, but that date is believed to be slipping – as is the date for the planned moon landing in 2020.