Lee Roop, The Huntsville Times The Huntsville Times
Another 150 to 250 Huntsville space workers could lose their jobs in Huntsville as early as Friday after Congress voted Wednesday night to punt America's current space program and start over.
The House of Representatives, racing to adjourn for its fall campaign break, ratified a NASA authorization bill passed earlier by the Senate. The three-year, appproximately $58 billion plan now goes to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it.
The House also voted with the Senate to continue funding NASA and other federal agencies at this year's level until Dec. 3. That continuing budget resolution is what threatens more layoffs.
The new space program, if Congress fully funds it later, would pump $1.6 billion into commercial space efforts, set NASA working on a new heavy-lift rocket to launch in 2016, and begin new NASA robot space missions. It would also expand a wide variety of Earth science, technology and space science programs.
Gone is the behind-schedule Constellation program that employed 2,200 federal and contractor employees at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. Most of them worked on Ares I, the first rocket in the three-part program.
The NASA employees' jobs are safe. However, 500 contract workers were laid off in June in anticipation of Constellation ending, but some were kept at work. Now, Constellation will end Friday when the new fiscal year starts.
Huntsville sources said Wednesday they expect NASA Headquarters in Washington will reprogram and reorganize its work force quickly for the new mission. But that could still leave the Constellation workers with no budget to pay their salaries until the new mission starts.
Marshall Space Flight Center Director Robert Lightfoot told an "all hands" meeting Tuesday that more layoffs are likely, multiple sources said, but that could not be officially confirmed Wednesday.
Huntsville attorney Mark McDaniel, a former member of the NASA Advisory Council who advises members of Congress on space matters, said that NASA does have some leeway in the transition.
"When you have an authorization like this, it gives managers a road map," McDaniel said. "NASA managers can make decisions with confidence the money will follow."
Causing more layoffs now, before the full funding process plays out, "would not be wise," McDaniel said..
Under the new program, Marshall takes the lead on the new heavy-lift rocket, but it is unclear for how long.
Marshall will also lead a major new program to launch robots to deep-space destinations humans might visit later.
NASA's year of turmoil began in February when Obama unveiled a proposed 2011 budget designed to kill Constellation, study a heavy-lift rocket but not start building one, and spend $6 billion over five years on commercial rockets.
Congress rejected that budget in a rare show of bipartisanship, and the plan given final approval Wednesday is a compromise.
U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, said it isn't perfect but does keep NASA in the manned spaceflight business. Shelby had criticized Obama's proposal as a turnover of America's space program to unproved private business.
"The NASA authorization bill rejects the administration's reckless cancellation of NASA's human space flight program and provides a framework to continue NASA's exploration program," Shelby said. "I am encouraged that the bill outlines a NASA-designed heavy lift rocket capability and continues Huntsville's leadership role in NASA's human exploration efforts."
Shelby also noted that the NASA funding fight isn't over.
"It is important to note that the authorization bill's passage is only a step in the legislative process and that the Appropriations Committee will determine the ultimate outcome. As the ranking member of the appropriations subcommittee of jurisdiction, I will continue to work diligently with my colleagues to pass a reasonable plan that maintains American leadership and superiority in space exploration."
The House vote was 304 to 118 for the bill. Reps. Parker Griffith, R-Huntsville, and Robert Aderholt, R-Hayleville, voted with the majority.
"For about a year, we have fought the president's plan to cancel Constellation and replace it with an unproven commercial program with very little accountability and safety," Aderholt said after the vote. "That's why I have supported the House NASA authorization bill because it boldly rejected the president's proposal and it provided a stronger human space flight plan through a traditional government option. I also supported Chairman Gordon's compromise bill. However, the House leadership did not bring either of these bills to the floor for an up-or-down vote or allow for amendments to the Senate bill."
"I decided to vote for the Senate NASA authorization bill because it is the only option, perhaps for many months, for ending the limbo created by the administration's desire to end Constellation. The Senate NASA authorization bill proposes to begin immediate, vigorous work on a heavy lift rocket and I look forward to seeing that program develop properly ...."
"I will work with Senator Shelby and the rest of the Alabama delegation during the Appropriations process to enable Marshall to move ahead on an appropriate heavy-lift rocket plan," Aderholt added.
"Even though this legislation doesn't fully rehabilitate manned space flight program, it preserves aspects of the Constellation program and builds a road map for where the space program should go in the future," Griffith said.
"Layoffs due to the changes NASA has made to existing programs have already begun in my district and in districts across our nation," Griffith said. "This legislation would recommit funding for some of the technology needed to maintain elements of manned space flight. This will not save the space flight program, however something must be passed to fund the program and I voted in favor of the compromise to support continued funding to NASA.".
REPORTER'S NOTE: This story has been changed to reflect that NASA's new program would cost approximately $58 billion over three years. The $19 billion figure in the original post was its cost for one year.