NASA Trying to Keep Talent as Program Goals Shift

Congress held hearings on the future of manned space. NASA is getting set to retire the space shuttle program. In its place, a program called Constellation. But the transition to the new program is set to take several years. As Todd Zwillich reports from Capitol Hill that could have an effect at NASA centers including Houston.

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The last shuttle flight is slated for 2010. Constellation is set to fly in 2014 or later. The years in between are called "the Gap". And it has workers at Cape Canaveral and at Johnson Space Center worried, says Johnny Walker. He's director of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Union.

"My main mission here today was to tell you that the workforce is nervous."

Walker told Congress workers will lose their highly valuable skills…if NAS doesn't launch during that five year gap.

"Whether it's in Houston or whether it's in Florida, an extended gap just makes it a larger problem for us to figure out how to maintain the skillset the nation needs to operate the next vehicle."

Also at stake... jobs. Democratic Senator Bill Nelson represents Florida, home of Kennedy Space Center, where NASA launches its spacecraft. Nelson warns Cape Canaveral stands to lose jobs when the agency shifts from operation back to development and testing for Constellation.

"Obviously there's gonna be some loss of employment because if you're not launching the vehicle you need less of a workforce."

Those cuts don't seem to threaten Johnson Space Center home to all Constellation planning. Still Nelson says he wants to narrow the Gap from five years to three. That could cost up to $800 million over the agency's current budget. Congress won't look at increasing the funds until the summer. But if Nelson succeeds, it will speed up work and jobs at Johnson.For Houston Public Radio, I'm Todd Zwillich on Capitol Hill.