In the political battle over the nation’s space program, the first casualties are people like Donny Smith, an engineer who received his layoff notice Monday.
“I’ve been preparing, trying to find something else to move to,” said Mr. Smith, who works for Bastion Technologies, one of the companies NASA has hired to help design rockets to return astronauts to the moon as part of its Constellation program.
Workers at Bastion and elsewhere are caught in a growing conflict between Congress, which has banned NASA from canceling any part of Constellation, and agency leaders who have directed program managers to scale back their work while preserving the parts that would fit into the new space policy proposed by President Obama.
The administration wants to turn to commercial companies for taking future astronauts to orbit while taking a hiatus from any ambitious missions to send astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit. Yet Congress has not agreed to the scuttling of Constellation and added a clause in this year’s federal budget that prohibited NASA from canceling the program or starting a new one without Congressional assent.
The skirmishing continued in earnest this week. Staff members on the House Committee on Science and Technology are reviewing documents that NASA sent over Friday evening to comply with the committee’s demand for information used in formulating the president’s proposal. In addition, on Tuesday, 62 House members signed a letter sent to President Obama “to express concern” over the direction of NASA.
“It is in the nation’s best interest to leverage the investments made in Constellation over the last five years, into a beyond low-Earth orbit exploration program, today,” said the letter writers, which included representatives of both political parties from states far beyond Texas, Alabama and Florida, which are home to the major NASA centers.
The basis for the latest Constellation upheaval is a clause in the contracts of Lockheed Martin, Alliant Techsystems Inc. and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, which states that the companies are responsible for setting aside contract money to pay for termination costs if the Constellation program were canceled.
In response to letters from NASA this year, Lockheed Martin and Alliant, more commonly known as ATK, said that for decades the space agency paid for termination costs like severance pay for workers and that the companies had not reserved money to cover that. Lockheed Martin has estimated its cancellation costs at $350 million, ATK at $500 million.
Two contracts with Boeing, another of the companies working on Constellation, were modified in late January so that NASA, not Boeing, set aside $81 million to pay for termination costs. Those changes were made less than two weeks before the administration announced its desire to cancel Constellation.
In a letter this month to leaders of key Congressional committees, Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr., the NASA administrator, cited the Anti-Deficiency Act — a law that prohibits federal agencies from spending more money than has been allocated by Congress — in announcing that the agency was scaling back Constellation to cover termination costs.
Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the Orion crew capsule that Mr. Obama has proposed turning into a lifeboat for the International Space Station, threatened to shut down the program if it had to set aside the termination costs. NASA has now sped up payment of $80 million to the company and then added $83 million to the contract to help Lockheed Martin manage the termination costs.
“We don’t want these contractors to go out of business if we can,” said Andrew Hunter, a NASA budget official. “They were going to shut down work on the 27th. We’re keeping them alive.”
ATK is still holding to the position that NASA is responsible for termination costs, and it has not aside money or prepared layoffs. As planned, ATK is receiving $160 million for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
Despite the infusion of money, Lockheed Martin is still moving 600 jobs off Orion, including 300 among its subcontractors. Boeing has also announced that layoffs are in the works. And with the shifting of money among the prime contractors, NASA is cutting so-called support contracts.
The entire layoff brunt so far is landing on people like Mr. Smith and not NASA government employees. In Huntsville, Ala., often called the Rocket City, Mayor Tommy Battle said he had heard that 700 people could be affected in his city. Nationwide, NASA has estimated that 2,500 to 5,000 jobs could be lost.
For Bastion Technologies, that means layoff notices went to 86 of the 190 employees working on the company’s NASA contract for analyzing potential safety issues with the Constellation program’s Ares rockets. Bastion’s workers get 60 days’ notice under federal law, but that law does not apply to all of the contractors.
That gives Mr. Smith time to look for work somewhere, but he is not optimistic.
“Given the scope of the layoffs and the fact there are more than a thousand people out there now looking,” Mr. Smith said, “I really don’t know.”
By KENNETH CHANG/NYTimes