The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has notified Rockwell International Corp. to suspend making some layoffs at its Downey space shuttle plant, a strong indication that NASA will order a new space orbiter, officials said Thursday.
Rockwell has also begun discussions with hundreds of space shuttle subcontractors to determine how quickly they could restart production lines to build parts for a new orbiter to replace the lost Challenger, Rockwell spokesmen said.
Even though the Reagan Administration has yet to announce a decision on building a new orbiter, Rockwell is preparing for shuttle production, a spokesman said. Rockwell has a history of such “betting on the come” in its aerospace work.
$2.8 Billion for Shuttle
A new space shuttle would take three years to produce and would cost $2.8 billion, of which Rockwell’s share would be about $2 billion. NASA and Rockwell representatives reportedly are discussing prices and schedules in meetings at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Rockwell would need to hire a couple of thousand new workers to produce a new shuttle, a Rockwell spokesman said. The Downey plant, where shuttle parts are made, currently employs about 7,000 workers. Rockwell has laid off nearly 2,000 employees since last year, when the last of the space shuttles was delivered.
“Plans have been put into effect to hold the (Rockwell) staff in place and not lay off people who might make a contribution to a new orbiter,” said Arnold Aldridge, manager of NASA’s national space transportation system.
Aldridge said that planning for production of a new orbiter is permitted even though no formal decision by President Reagan has been reached. If the President decides to build a new orbiter, Congress will have to authorize the production and appropriate funds.
But the Reagan Administration is weeks behind schedule on a decision on replacing the Challenger, congressional sources, who requested anonymity, said.
The secretive Senior Interagency Group, a White House organization composed of officials from the Pentagon, the National Security Council, NASA and the Transportation Department, has been charged with developing a program to get the nation back into space.
NASA officials testified Thursday before the House Science and Technology subcommittee on space science and applications that a decision is expected as early as next week, congressional sources said. The White House group is expected to recommend building a new orbiter and expanding production of expendable rockets.
AF Wants Rockets
The Air Force would like to press ahead with as many as four expendable launching vehicles. They include the Titan 2, Titan 3D, Titan 34D7 and either the Delta or Atlas. All of the Titans are made by Martin Marietta Corp. in Denver. The Delta is made by McDonnell Douglas Corp. in Huntington Beach, and the Atlas is made by General Dynamics Corp. in San Diego.
Considerable government and private industry support has emerged for the construction of a Challenger replacement. Both the Air Force and NASA have told Congress that they are behind building a new spacecraft.
“We have very few options to not building a new orbiter,” said Peter E. Glaser, a NASA consultant and space expert at Arthur D. Little Inc. “Space will be a very large commercial enterprise. The stakes are very high.”
Meanwhile, at other aerospace firms around Southern California, the Challenger disaster is having a mixture of positive and negative effects:
--TRW Inc. has been told by NASA to prepare for a stretch-out of its Gamma Ray Observatory satellite program. The observatory, a large scientific satellite that would measure gamma radiation, was originally to have been launched in May, 1988, but NASA is now considering a 10-month or 21-month stretch-out of the project, according to TRW project manager Jerry Gliksman.
If the program is held up by 21 months, it will mean putting the huge satellite in storage and then retesting the entire system before launching, he said. In either case, the delays will add millions of dollars to the cost of the program, Gliksman said.
--NASA is expected shortly to issue a request for bids to build a new tracking and data relay satellite, an Air Force official said. One of the six in the current program was lost aboard the Challenger. It is built by TRW.
Space Probes on Hold
--The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena has suspended plans to launch its nuclear powered Galileo and Ulysses space probes later this year.
--The Air Force Space Division in El Segundo is reassessing a number of its programs, including the Navstar navigation system. The next Navstar satellite was to have been launched at the beginning of 1987.
The Air Force is now considering shifting the launching of those satellites to Delta or Atlas rockets. So far, production of the satellites is proceeding.