Lost in space as shuttle winds down

Nasa's Kennedy Space Centre is now full of men without a mission.

It's 9am, and 100 employees of Nasa's Kennedy Space Centre, east of Orlando, Florida, are lining up for freelance work.

Film director Michael Bay will use the famed facility, origin of the Apollo Moonshots, as backdrop for Transformers 3, the finale of his alien-robot war trilogy, a Hollywood tip- of-the-hat to a place that once launched the future. Bay needs extras, and Kennedy has no shortage.

For 30 years, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has flown the space shuttle, built and maintained the International Space Station and overseen unmanned scientific probes. Now its main mission, launching shuttles, is ending, with no lofty new goal in sight.

The first of three final flights is scheduled for Tuesday. The last should take off next year.

With no manned government rockets ready to go, routine trips to low-earth orbit will be outsourced. Any US astronaut heading to the heavens in the next five years will have to get there by renting a seat in a Russian Soyuz or one of several corporate-owned spacecraft.

Eight thousand engineers, technicians and other employees are losing their jobs, most private-sector workers. The 2100 directly employed by Nasa aren't targeted for layoffs, right now. Florida towns built around Nasa's programmes - Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach, Titusville - are in a defensive crouch, like wobbly boxers waiting for a knockout punch.

In February, the Obama Administration cancelled Constellation, cutting to about US$10 billion the losses from the over-budget programme that was supposed to take Americans back to the moon for the first time since 1972, and then to Mars.

The White House has instructed the agency to marshal resources and chart a new course. But it's trapped in "a period of sustained ambiguity," says James Ball, a programme manager in Florida. There's no agreement within the agency or Congress over where the US should go next in space - and the public doesn't care about an answer.

Agency leaders have grasped at proposals that fell through for lack of support on Capitol Hill. To justify an annual budget now in the US$19 billion range, Nasa has kept the shuttle flying, despite its late-1970s technology.

"It's just a phenomenal vehicle," says Robert Cabana, the director of the Kennedy Space Centre. A former test pilot for the Marines, Cabana flew on four shuttle missions. Today, he's in charge of thinning employees' ranks, scattered across the centre's 140,000 acres.

"Nasa's not going away by any means," he says, while expressing his sense of loss. "I just said goodbye to 900 good people for the last time," he says of the latest lay-offs. "I can't put into words what that feels like."

In 2004, the agency commissioned a consumer study by the Centre for Cultural Studies & Analysis in Philadelphia. "Despite a strong emotional attachment to Nasa," the think-tank reported, many of its achievements since the end of the Apollo programme have "failed to resonate, or even register" with the public."

The brand having eroded, the Bush Administration announced the shuttle programme would end this decade. Outside Nasa and aerospace contracting circles, few people seemed to notice. "The space programme has become too much of a federal jobs programme," says Frank DiBello, a space industry consultant.

DiBello advised the Defence Department on missile performance and consulted corporations that manufacture and service rockets while working for KPMG for 25 years. In the 1990s, he launched SpaceVest Management Group, a venture-capital firm in northern Virginia.

Throughout, he watched as politicians and bureaucrats spread Nasa resources around the US: launches at Kennedy, mission control at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, propulsion engineering in Huntsville, Alabama, rocket testing in southern Mississippi, management of astronomy missions at the Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland.

"The programme gets pulled in different directions, based on which senator or congressman wants business for his or her district," says DiBello, who came out of retirement to lead a Florida-sponsored economic diversification initiative aimed at attracting technology-based businesses that might scoop up some of the laid-off Nasa workforce.

To replace the shuttle, the Bush Administration said the Constellation programme would help rejuvenate the country and lead to a manned Mars landing. "We choose to explore space because doing so improves our lives and lifts our national spirit," he said a year after the lethal explosion of space shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003.

The shuttle's retirement was supposed to free up money for a family of long-distance, heavy-lift rockets. The funding was "grossly inadequate", DiBello says. The shuttle flies for about US$3 billion a year. Getting to Mars would come to half a trillion dollars over time, DiBello says. The latest White House plan has several components and as many risks. Private-sector corporations are to transport cargo and crew to the Space Station. Contractors such as Hawthorne, California-based Space Exploration Technologies, started in 2002 by Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, are testing proprietary rockets. In June, Musk's company successfully flew its Falcon 9 launch vehicle from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, adjacent to Kennedy.

Virgin Group's Sir Richard Branson said last week his Virgin Galactic wanted to be involved in the private-sector plan, either by teaming up with another company or going it alone. In theory, outsourcing low Earth orbit will make available resources for Nasa to focus on farther-reaching manned exploration. How this strategy will be implemented, and at what cost over what period of time, remains unclear.

The US$58 billion, three-year Nasa authorisation legislation passed by the US House in September, and earlier by the Senate, endorses Obama's mandate to use taxpayer money to spur commercial rocket development, while cutting money devoted to that goal.

The legislation, which Obama signed this month, instructs Nasa to move ahead with a new spacecraft that could land on an asteroid by 2025. In a nod to Boeing, Lockheed Martin and lawmakers representing states with existing shuttle operations, Congress exhorts the agency to rely as much as possible on existing technology and personnel.

One assumption built into the Obama plan is that private industry will perform routine space work less expensively than the Government.

Given that corporations already do a lot of this sort of labour under contracts with Nasa, the premise raises questions about how they will suddenly become more cost-effective, without sacrificing safety.

Nasa and its contractors are hoping that, as space travel becomes more common, it will foster new commercial research and adventure tourism.

Branson said last week that Virgin Galactic wanted to be involved in the private sector plan, either by teaming up with another company or going it alone.

Virgin Galactic plans to start taking paying customers into space in 2012.

Corporations will be able to defray costs and reduce bills for taxpayers. The possible flaw in the argument is that, for the foreseeable future, there isn't much that must to be done in space, beyond launching and maintaining communications satellites.

DiBello says the greatest potential is in fields such as medical research and in yet-to-be-discovered technologies.

Space activity has produced valuable inventions such as global positioning devices that have had lucrative commercial applications.

Whether or not privatisation saves money, it has already changed attitudes at Kennedy Space. Nasa officials for the first time are pitching the centre's capabilities to audiences of corporate executives, who will decide where to locate new commercial-space operations.

Last month, Boeing announced that it would enter the space-tourism and astronaut-transport business, with flights scheduled as early as 2015. Which site will host the launches hasn't been determined.

Avera Motors, a 2009 spin-off from Mainstream Engineering, Florida-based developer of energy conversion products, also aims to capitalise on the ferment at Kennedy. The company occupies a site in Florida where its 20-person team has fabricated a prototype of a low-emission, high-mileage sports car it plans to sell in late 2012.

In addition to privately raised seed money, Avera's chief executive officer, RJ Scaringe, 27, received US$2.5m in state financing, some of it secured by DiBello.

Scaringe, who has a PhD in mechanical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, plans to step up hiring early next year. "The skilled technical workers becoming available because of the shuttle layoffs are perfect for us," he says.

Roberta Wyrick, 56, a United Space employee who oversees orbiter testing, says, "The tradition around space is what I'm worried will go away." Wyrick has a maths degree from the University of Central Florida and 31 years of experience at Kennedy. She heard there may be jobs at Nasa's Wallops Flight Facility on the eastern shore of Virginia, where smaller research launches take place. She hasn't asked.

"I've got a house here, and I thought I would retire from Kennedy," she says. "I launch shuttles. When I see it on the pad, getting ready, my heart just starts beating faster."

- BLOOMBERG

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