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Space Shuttle Workers Fear End of Program, Loss of Jobs

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Half of NASA's shuttle workers are worried about their future after next year's fleet retirement, an employee survey shows.

Sixty percent are dissatisfied with information they are receiving about the shutdown and NASA's future.

Three of four might leave for the right opportunity.

But only 5 percent are actively seeking new jobs.

In fact, 80 percent are likely to stay through the six remaining missions. And most supervisors believe they'll have the right people with the right skills to finish the program safely.

The findings - outlined in NASA employee surveys obtained by Florida Today through the Freedom of Information Act - illuminate a major safety issue.

Losing critically skilled workers is a top risk for the $3 billion-a-year shuttle program, ranking right up there with potential rocket booster or engine failures.

An exodus would raise the chances of catastrophe as NASA aims to complete the International Space Station.

"I can't think of anything more important," said Retired Navy Vice Adm. Joseph Dyer, chairman of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, which was created by Congress after the 1967 Apollo 1 launch pad fire.

"At the end of the day, flying high-technology machines into space is a business in which safety rides on the shoulders of skilled, hard-working folks."

NASA officials say the surveys show extraordinary commitment in uncertain times. NASA's shuttle program employs 10,300 contractors and 1,500 civil servants in eight states and Washington, D.C. Most of them work at Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center in Houston, Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Miss.

Contractors will bear the brunt of the reductions when the fleet retires. Some 7,000 KSC contractor jobs are projected to be lost. NASA civil service workers almost certainly will find new work within the agency. So any sort of angst among those workers is telling.

"Are they concerned? Absolutely," said NASA survey administrator Sue Leibert.

But "people still want to be in the program. They are committed to NASA. They are committed to the shuttle. They want to stay to the end," she said. "They want to be a piece of history."

The safety panel recently visited Kennedy Space Center.

Dyer noted "considerably less anxiety" from supervisors about retaining critically skilled NASA and contractor workers.

"I think it speaks to the dedication of the space work force," he said. "We came away appreciative and encouraged."

NASA's 2009 survey of civil service shuttle workers shows:

- 83 percent are likely to stay through the last mission.

That's up from 72 percent in 2008 and 66 percent in 2007 and 2006.

NASA's next shuttle flight is slated to blast off Monday. Five additional missions are scheduled to fly between February and September.

But NASA's recent flight rate suggests the last mission - now set to launch Sept. 16 and land Sept. 24 - might slip to early 2011. The White House has agreed to fund the program that year if need be.

- 73 percent say they might leave for the right opportunity. But only five percent are looking.

Twice as many actively sought work elsewhere in 2006, 2007 and 2008.

"It's pretty clear the folks we have now are very motivated to stay, they are very loyal to the program," said NASA Shuttle Program Manager John Shannon.

The economy and soaring unemployment also have made other opportunities scarce.

The latest surveys show growing angst:

- 52.5 percent of NASA shuttle employees are worried about work available after fleet retirement.

That's up from 45 percent in 2008, 43 percent in 2007 and 36 percent in 2006.

One reason: The Augustine Committee.

The 2009 survey took place amid a 90-day White House review chaired by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine.

NASA since 2004 has spent $9 billion on Project Constellation, developing the Ares I crew launcher, the Ares V heavy-lift cargo carrier and Orion spacecraft. Constellation arose out of a 2004 presidential directive to return U.S. astronauts to the moon by 2020.

Augustine's panel was directed to develop other options for NASA's human space flight program.

The committee found that Constellation, while technically achievable, had been underfunded.

NASA's plan to field Ares I rockets and Orion spacecraft by March 2015 was dismissed as undoable within current budget projections.

The committee said NASA would need another $3 billion a year to conduct a meaningful human space flight program.

Eight alternatives were highlighted in a final report last month. Six would scrap Ares I in favor of developing commercial crew launchers.

NASA is awaiting White House direction while pressing ahead with Constellation.

"So there is a lot of concern about what the future is going to be," Leibert said.

The 2009 survey shows workers are worried about:

- The uncertainty of NASA's mission.

- The five- to eight-year gap between shuttle retirement and first piloted flights of successor craft.

It also shows:

- Only 38 percent think they are getting enough information on shuttle retirement and the road ahead.

NASA managers say they are trying to keep the work force informed. But they note clear direction from the White House and agency leaders still is lacking.

United Space Alliance, NASA's prime shuttle fleet operator, put in place financial incentive packages - the details of which have not been disclosed - to keep skilled workers employed through the program's end. USA employs 5,800 at KSC.

The company still has "a very focused, very dedicated, very motivated work force," said USA spokesman Jeffrey Carr.

"They still have the coolest jobs around, and we're securing the legacy of the shuttle program," he said. "It's important that it gets done right."

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