As NASA’s fortunes rise, fall, so do Huntsville’s

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Huntsville became known as the “Rocket City” after Wernher von Braun moved there to start NASA’s race to the moon.

Huntsville became known as the “Rocket City” after Wernher von Braun moved there to start NASA’s race to the moon.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — You can find uncertainty mixed with optimism in this town.

The optimism comes from studies that find aerospace companies plan to hire 15,469 people nationwide this year. A good share of those jobs is likely to land in Huntsville.

The unease stems from NASA’s new direction, which involves cutting the Constellation and Orion “heavy-lift” space-flight programs that the Marshall Space Flight Center and its contractors rely on for jobs and federal funding.

“We haven’t been immune to layoffs here,” said Angela Storey, a spokeswoman at Marshall. “NASA itself hasn’t had any layoffs, and they’ve promised there won’t be any as a result of ending the programs. But the contractors, that’s a different story.”

NASA employs nearly 7,000 people in Huntsville, but only 2,700 work directly for the agency. The rest are contractors.

Boeing and Lockheed Martin both have said they could be forced to cut hundreds of jobs if the programs are ended, as called for by President Obama. Congress intervened earlier this year to stop cuts to the programs, preserving contracts and jobs, at least for the time being.

Losing any part of the NASA mission could hurt Huntsville; the space agency has a $2.89 billion impact on Alabama’s economy.

However, NASA’s mission in Huntsville is diverse — it’s not just all about the rockets anymore. Marshall Air Field also monitors scientific experiments at the International Space Station, among other jobs.

The federal government itself might step into help, thanks to a bill sponsored by Florida Congressman Bill Nelson. The bill would create enterprise zones around the country where investors who put money into commercial space ventures would receive major tax breaks worth 20 percent of their outlays.

Huntsville would certainly be designated an enterprise zone if the bill passes. The bill would apply only in areas of the country that have lost space jobs.

Kader Frendi, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and a 25-year veteran of NASA, isn’t overly worried about Huntsville’s future.

“This is what happens. The agency changes missions every time the president changes,” he said. “It’s part of doing the job. And they’ll lay off people. But the next thing will come along — they have to have some kind of heavy-lift vehicle, and they’ll hire those people back.”