U.S. contractors face layoffs unless NASA moves faster

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. March 31 Tue Mar 31, 2009 12:38pm EDT

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. March 31 (Reuters) - U.S. contractors involved in human spaceflight will have to lay off up to 10,000 workers unless NASA accelerates orders for a new lunar lander and the space shuttle replacement program, a senior Boeing Co (BA.N) official said on Tuesday.

The five-year gap between the end of the space shuttle program in 2010 and the follow-on Constellation program's first flight in 2015 is a challenge for the companies involved, Brewster Shaw, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space Exploration, told reporters at a space conference.

Shaw said the five biggest contractors in the sector faced combined layoffs of 8,000 to 10,000 workers because of the gap. The five biggest contractors are Boeing, Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N), Alliant Techsystems Inc (ATK.N), United Technologies Corp's (UTX.N) Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, and United Space Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed joint venture.

The companies and their smaller suppliers were urging lawmakers and NASA to accelerate work on the Ares 5 program, the cargo component of the Constellation program, as well as the Altair lunar lander program, Shaw said.

Initial study contracts were already being let, but the production contracts -- worth several billions dollars -- are not expected until 2012, which would force companies to lay off workers in the interim, he said.

Shaw acknowledged that some layoffs, possibly up to half, were probably inevitable given a shift from operational work on the shuttle to more developmental work on its replacement. Much would depend on funding levels in the Obama administration's budget for fiscal 2010, which begins on Oct. 1.

The White House's broad budget proposal unveiled in February appeared to have a "very flat" run-up in funding from 2010, which meant NASA would lose buying power, Shaw said.

Shaw, a former astronaut, also said initial statements from the Obama administration showed support for returning humans to the moon, but did not point to strong support for former President George W. Bush's push to put humans on Mars. (Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

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