NASA budget leads to jobs worries

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Jobs – that was the main issue debated about NASA’s 2011 budget request and new direction.

Where would they be created? When? What happens to the people who will lose their jobs when they end Constellation program?

The answer: there is opportunity in the new budget, but the opportunity might require new training and relocation to other areas.

Scott Pace of George Washington University’s Space Policy Foundation said the budget worried him. He believes it relies too heavily, too soon on private industry.

“We need to prove cargo first,” he said. “And add manned flight in later. This moves too fast, and I don’t think it can succeed.”

But Lori Garver, who works for NASA, had nothing but praise for the president’s budget plan and plan for NASA.

“The current plan, the current road is unsustainable,” she said. “We couldn’t keep doing it. The president recognizes this, and didn’t just kick the can down the road for the next president. We’re doing the hard thing now, but we’re doing the necessary thing.”

Garver said the president would announce job training programs for displaced workers in the states that rely on manned space flight – Texas, Florida, and Alabama — and Colorado to a lesser extent.

Earlier in the day, Gov. Bill Ritter said the loss of Constellation would put 4,000 people out of work in the state.

Garver sought to end some of the rumors surrounding space flight. She said the budget doesn’t end human space exploration – it extends it beyond its current limitations.

“We’ve extended the Space Station,” she said. “That’s a dynamic program, and it shows NASA’s commitment.”

The decision going forward merely switches the way NASA contracts work. The agency already spends 85 percent of its dollars on commercial contracts, and that won’t change. The type of contracts will change, she said.

But Pace said the NASA market alone won’t be enough to spur investment.

“I love the words in this budget,” he said. “I love the romanticism. But this budget ends enterprise, and that’s a bug. It’s a problem.”

Pulling government out of the equation means that human space program will end – the NASA decision cannot succeed, he said.

“It breaks it, and it means that we lose for five or eight years, the technology and experience of the current work force. I want to believe in this budget, but I just can’t,” he said.

The FAA is working to close that gap by creating a Commercial Space Center of Excellence at a university. The applications are due this month, with the chosen university announced in May. A curriculum will be in place by the fall semester.

FAA will play a big role in the next generation, because it must license any craft created by commercial entities. The key for growth in the industry is the number of space boards licensed by the FAA, said George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space for the FAA.

“We’ve seen a big increase during the last six months,” he said. “We just approved one in January for New Mexico.”

And those boards are now eligible for the FAA grants normally reserved for airport improvements, he said.

“I have to believe there will be a lot of opportunity in this budget,” said Frank DiBello, president and CEO of Space Florida. “But there’s going to be some hurt too.”

The industry is bracing for Pres. Obama’s speech on Thursday, when he will address NASA’s budget and its new direction. Most representatives at the Space Symposium won’t discuss what he might say – but all will be paying close attention.