The U.S. government’s ongoing failure to devise a spaceflight plan for NASA after the shuttle fleet is retired raises the specter of more workforce cuts in the 50-year-old U.S. launch industry, with serious industrial-base implications for the nation, according to the head of rocket-engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (PWR).
“To me the shuttle ending is just a huge scenario that in the history of spaceflight this country has never faced,” said PWR President Jim Maser after attending a CEO meeting March 7 called by top NASA management. “I don’t think people understand what we in business will have to do to accommodate that without a follow-on, because we’re going to have to significantly reduce staff, and [the Defense Department is] going to have to carry a lot more than they’re used to carrying.”
Maser estimates that NASA, the White House and Congress have “four to eight months” to choose a way forward for the U.S. space agency and begin sticking to it. After that, he expects “hundreds” of layoffs at PWR as he begins to roll up unfunded rocket-engine programs like the J-2X cryogenic upper-stage engine.
Developed for the Ares I crew launch vehicle under the old Constellation program, the first full-up J-2X is set to begin testing at Stennis Space Center next month. But with no additional funds in sight, Maser says the development will be mothballed.
Similar conditions could await other PWR engine programs, including the reusable version of the space shuttle main engine (SSME), the venerable RL-10 upper-stage engine and the workhorse RS-68, depending on how NASA proceeds.
The RS-68 powers the Delta IV Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) that lifts high-value Defense Department payloads; and without a NASA role for the engine, Maser says the Pentagon will have to pay much higher prices for the hardware, given the low production rates of large rocket engines.
“We’re going to continue to be, what I would call vilified, for making business decisions,” he says. “To me it’s all very predictable and at this point very avoidable, but we’ve got to change the uncertainty. Right now it’s just arguing. There’s no time for that.”
Congress is still working on funding for NASA’s fiscal 2011 budget request, which killed Constellation, and is unhappy with the agency’s fiscal 2012 request that continues the basic policy of the earlier request. In the interim, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed a compromise NASA authorization that allows work on the commercial route to the International Space Station embodied in the fiscal 2011 request, but orders the agency to develop a heavy-lift rocket for exploration beyond low Earth orbit.
That rocket is still in development, with NASA engineers trying to figure out how much of the old Constellation contracting and workforce can be shifted into the new development. That work is likely to involve at least one of the PWR engines, but final decisions have not been made.
Maser says he told NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at the CEO meeting that “you called me 13 months ago and told me Constellation was canceled. You have not called me and told me what it’s being replaced with.” But Bolden and his deputy, Lori Garver, replied: “We feel your pain, and we’re trying to work it,” Maser says.