Tough Times Could Be Ahead for Kennedy Space Center

The Vehicle Asssembly Building at Kennedy Space Center. Image: Nancy Atkinson


The cancellation of the Constellation program compounds an already bleak picture for the Kennedy Space Center and those who work there. 7,000 shuttle workers are expected to lose their jobs by the time the shuttle program comes to an end by late 2010 or early 2011. So far, NASA has not provided an estimate of how many government and contractor jobs will be lost as Constellation — the program that would have sent astronauts back to the Moon — will be slashed. But it could be a hard blow to KSC and communities surrounding the space center.

“This is a big deal and it is going to affect us,” said Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana about the cancellation at a press conference earlier this week. Shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach talked about the “shock” and “uncertainty” that many at KSC are feeling.

But Cabana said that when it comes time to launch the space shuttles, everyone is focused. “The workforce here is the most professional and dedicated I’ve ever seen,” he said.

And since the STS-130 mission is scheduled to launch on Super Bowl Sunday, Leinbach took the opportunity to use a football analogy.

“I asked everybody to treat these last five missions like a professional team. We can be down in the fourth quarter; we can be many, many points behind,” Leinbach said, “but we’re going to play every down and we’re going until the final whistle blows.”

But while NASA officials try to paint the best picture possible, the workforce is definitely feeling apprehensive. Roughly 2,100 NASA civil servants at KSC are expected to remain employed, with assignments shifting toward technology research and development. But most of KSC’s 11,000 shuttle program workers are employed by contractors. Without the shuttle and without a subsequent government-based program for human spaceflight, the jobs will likely disappear.

“The mood at work has been sort of somber for a while now, but it seems a bit more anxious now,” said Jen Scheer, a shuttle technician for a NASA contractor. “Morale is definitely very low. We all love the shuttle program and will be very sad to see it come to an end.”

Scheer and her husband both work at KSC, and have been preparing for potential layoffs by returning to college for additional degrees and looking to other options for potential careers.

Launchpad 39B at KSC, recently refurbished for the Ares rockets. Image: Nancy Atkinson

“The announcement Monday (about the cancellation of Constellation) really didn’t even faze us- we pretty much expected it,” Scheer said. “But a lot of the people we work with did not have the same reaction. They wanted to believe the shuttle would be extended, or they would be selected to go on to the next program. Many are very scared now.”

In addition to lost jobs, the housing market surrounding the Cape is in trouble. “Due to the depressed market here, not much has been selling for about the past two or three years,” Scheer said. “Property values dropped so sharply that many of us owe more on our homes than they are worth. So we really can’t leave. But we’ve seen it coming, and we know what we have to do.”

Cabana also said he and his team saw the likelihood that Constellation would be canceled, and have dug in to prepare for the future. He firmly believes human spaceflight will continue at KSC. “Launch Complex 39 is not going to go to waste. The geography of Florida makes it perfect for launching to orbit,” Cabana said. “That’s a unique facility out there with unique assets, and I think they will be available for commercial use also.”

Cabana said they’ve begun to organize to better support future exploration so that KSC is not program-centric, but support centric. “We’re working to define what our role is in commercial space,” he said

Even NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, speaking at a press conference on Saturday, said that while he can empathize with workers at KSC, he admits he can’t feel what they are feeling. He compared the end of Constellation to a death in the family. “Every body needs to understand that, and give them time to grieve and time to recover,” he said earlier this week. “I have an incredible work force, they have been through this before. This is part of life at NASA, and we manage to recover and go on and do great things.”

But Scheer and her husband continue to plan ahead. As a staunch supporter of spaceflight, Scheer began the Space Tweep Society, an organization with mission to “promote enthusiasm for all things space and to unite those inside the space industry with those who are outside looking in.” To expand what the popular Twitter-based organization does for space education and awareness, Scheer is looking to create a non-profit organization and is planning to apply for education grants. “I think our only hope is going to be to get money from outside this area,” she said. “There are a lot of positive things I want to do to keep the dream of space exploration alive in our country even in the absence of a manned program.”

For more info about the Space Tweep Society

Read Jen Scheer’s article on the Open NASA website about the end of the shuttle program

President Can’t Cut Constellation Without Congressional Approval

With all the speculation currently making the rounds about Obama axing the Constellation program and ending the possibilities of humans returning to the Moon anytime soon, it was brought to our attention by a reader that under the 2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act, H.R. 3288, passed on September 17, 2009, Congress inserted a clause in the language of the FY2010 NASA funding bill that would prevent President Obama from terminating the Constellation program without Congressional approval. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida and Senator Richard Shelby from Alabama — two states that have a huge stake in NASA’s future — were the main sponsors of the clause in the Senate version. So, it doesn’t appear that Obama can just cut Constellation, not without a fight, anyway.

Also while we’re on the subject of NASA’s future, Administrator Charlie Bolden spoke in Israel yesterday, and journalist Avi Blizovsky from the online publication Hayadan shared with Universe Today some interesting comments Bolden made about NASA’s direction.

Bolden apparently confirmed that an agreement had been reached between NASA and its international partners to continue operations of the International Space Station until 2020. (Another Russian report said that NASA has suggested keeping the station operational until 2028).

Charlie Bolden in Israel. Credit: Avi Blizovsky

Bolden was in Israel at the Ilan Ramon International Space Conference to help announce that two new Israeli astronauts will be named.

Bolden said there will be dramatic changes to the human spaceflight program. “We are going to have to adapt to change, and the President’s decision is the beginning of the debate,” Bolden said. Without offering specific detail he added, “Based on what I know today is this is the best thing for the nation and for the family of space fairing nations.”

He said the current budgetary situation does not allow NASA to go to the Moon, but he emphasized the importance of international partnerships returning to the Moon and going to Mars. “Flying in space is expensive and risky and requires a broad set of capabilities that it is difficult for one nation to do it,” he said. “I think what President Obama wants me to do is work more closely with international partners.”

But he also stressed how commercial space companies will extremely important to the future of space exploration.

“As we phase the space shuttle out, we have got to find another way to get humans to space. What we’re going to focus on, … is facilitating the success of, I like to use the term ‘entrepreneurial interests’,” he said, saying that NASA has always used commercial companies to build and maintain the shuttle and other vehicles. “What’s going to change, I think, is that instead of NASA buying a vehicle and then taking over its primary operations, we will buy a service.”

So, back to speculating:

Also, remember the news that broke shortly after Obama and Bolden met at the White House in December: a White House insider reported that Obama is going cut Ares, but still ask Congress to fund a new heavy-lift launcher to take humans to the moon, asteroids, and the moons of Mars. The news in December said NASA would receive an additional $1 billion in 2011 (now reports are saying $1.8 billion) to get the new launcher on track and to bolster the agency’s fleet of robotic Earth-monitoring spacecraft.

So don’t count out returning to the Moon just yet.

Hat tip to UT reader Craigboy and the Daily Kos

Where is NASA Going? Rumors Fly

The rumors are flying fast and furious as to details of NASA’s budget and future path that will be officially announced on February 1, 2010. The Orlando Sentinel says the Constellation program is dead: Obama and Congress are going to pull the plug on the Ares rocket and nix returning to the Moon. The Houston Chronicle says there is no way NASA will get a budget boost, especially not the $3 billion suggested by the Augustine Commission. New Scientists reports that Mars’ moon Phobos will be the next destination of human explorers, as part of the undefined “flexible path” — again suggested by the Augustine panel. Most interesting among the mix is a blog post by NASA’s Wayne Hale, who suggests NASA should get out of the human spaceflight business – and allow commercial space companies to handle hauling astronauts to space.

Some speculate this could be the end of America’s space agency as we know it — we might as well take the “S” out of NASA.

The Augustine Commission report last year said “The human spaceflight program that the United States is currently pursuing is on an unsustainable trajectory.”

But is ending Constellation, a program we’ve already spent billions on going to save money or our space program in the long run?

Or does NASA need a whole new direction and a whole new beginning.

Or is it an ending?

Enough speculation. The official word will come on Monday.

Discuss below, or chime in at this thread on NASAWatch, or this one at Space Politics.

Engineers Find Fixes For Potential Thrust Oscillation Problem on Ares

Will the Ares rocket stay or will it go? For now, no one knows, but NASA engineers have developed multiple options for “de-tuning” the Ares I rocket to prevent any problematic thrust oscillations that could potentially expose astronauts to dangerous levels of vibrations as the rocket climbs to orbit with the Orion crew vehicle atop. Even though the Ares I-X test flight showed no problematic thrust oscillation vibrations took place during the flight, engineers believe they have found a solution to preclude it from actually ever happening with any future Ares rocket. Read the details below; and enjoy this video round-up of everything that happened with the Constellation program in 2009.
Continue reading “Engineers Find Fixes For Potential Thrust Oscillation Problem on Ares”

Latest Buzz: NASA to Get Bigger Budget and New Launcher

OK, I guess I was wrong yesterday when I said nothing happened during the meeting between President Obama and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. Science Magazine has now published this:

President Barack Obama will ask Congress next year to fund a new heavy-lift launcher to take humans to the moon, asteroids, and the moons of Mars, ScienceInsider has learned. The president chose the new direction for the U.S. human space flight program Wednesday at a White House meeting with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, according to officials familiar with the discussion. NASA would receive an additional $1 billion in 2011 both to get the new launcher on track and to bolster the agency’s fleet of robotic Earth-monitoring spacecraft.

If this is true, it would mean Ares would be scrapped for another, simpler heavy-lift vehicle that could be ready to fly as early as 2018. Science News also said that European countries, Japan, and Canada would be asked to work on a lunar lander and modules for a moon base, saving the U.S. several billion dollars, and commercial companies would take over the job of getting supplies to the international space station.

So, what about the “flexible path” suggested by the Augustine Commission? If this plan is implemented, U.S. partners focus on lunar exploration, and NASA — while helping out with the Moon missions, might also focus on missions to asteroids and Phobos and Deimos to prepare for a later human landing on the Red Planet in the distant future. To prepare for human visits, NASA may order additional robotic missions to the martian moons and asteroids in coming years.

Nothing’s official yet; we’ll have to wait and see what actually transpires….

Read Science Magazine’s ScienceInsider for the whole story.

What’s your opinion on this possible turn of events?