CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA told a Senate panel on Monday that it anticipates losing 3,000 to 4,000 jobs at its launching site once the space shuttles stop flying in two more years, about half the cutback initially reported.
Although as many as 6,000 to 7,000 shuttle jobs will be eliminated at Kennedy Space Center, about 3,000 positions will open up in the new exploration program, said NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.
Those jobs will be created to build and fly new spaceships to the international space station and, ultimately, to the moon.
"I can't say it's good news, but it's certainly news that's a step in the right direction," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., chairman of the space subcommittee, who organized the hearing.
The two-hour hearing, held in the Port Canaveral offices just miles away from Kennedy Space Center, attracted local officials as well as dozens of residents.
Hundreds of people converged for an outdoor rally right before the morning hearing; organizers put the head count at 1,000.
They held signs reading "America — one small step, one giant voice" and "America the place for space" and linked hands for the final seconds of a recorded launch countdown to show their support for a strong national space program.
Nelson, who flew on space shuttle Columbia in 1986 as a congressman, told the crowd that he brought NASA's top leaders to Cape Canaveral to speak directly to the people whose jobs are in jeopardy.
As the hearing got under way, the senator noted there is an opportunity now, with the upcoming presidential election, to change space policy and get more money for NASA.
When questioned by Nelson, Griffin said he does not expect to have a clearer job picture until 2009.
NASA is under presidential orders to complete the space station and stop flying its three remaining space shuttles in 2010, then shift its focus to moon exploration.
Many if not most of the engineering jobs needed to sustain the new moon program, called Constellation, will likely be based in Cape Canaveral, Griffin said.
For the space shuttle, those positions are primarily in Houston and Huntsville, Ala., which are not expected to have nearly as many, if any, cuts.
Overall, the new rockets and spacecraft will require fewer workers.
"We're trying to give you the best bang for the buck that we can," Griffin said.
It's expected to be 2015 — five years after the last shuttle flight — before NASA's new rocket ship is ready to blast off with astronauts.
Nelson and Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who attended Monday's hearing, bemoaned the fact that the United States will have to rely on Russians to get Americans to the space station during those five years.
Nelson said layoffs could economically devastate the area, similar to what happened during the lull between the Apollo moon shots of the early 1970s and the first space shuttle flight in 1981.
"The last thing we need to do is to lose this tremendous work force, to put people out of work, give them a pink slip, while at the same time we're generating jobs in Russia to accomplish the same mission," Martinez said. "It's shortsighted. It makes no sense. We need to reverse it."
Griffin acknowledged he finds it "unseemly in the extreme" to have to rely on Russia.
"However, I can't find a way to avoid it," he said.
It would have taken significantly more money to get the new rocket ship ready earlier and narrow the five-year gap, Griffin said.