In the first sign of cutbacks from NASA’s redesigned space station, the Rocketdyne division of Rockwell International said it has begun cutting 200 jobs in anticipation of getting as much as $90 million less next year for developing the electrical power system for the troubled project.
Based on budget projections for the federal space agency, Rocketdyne said it expects to receive $250 million to $300 million for space station work in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. That compares to $340 million this fiscal year.
As a result, Rocketdyne said, it is trimming its engineering staff in Canoga Park through layoffs and attrition. By next month, the division’s space station work force will be down to 900 from a peak of 1,100 earlier this summer, said George Hallinan, Rocketdyne’s vice president and program manager of the space station.
Other project contractors are also bracing for hard times. McDonnell Douglas Corp.'s aerospace unit in Huntington Beach, which employs about 2,500 workers who make girder-like trusses and other components for the space station, said the company is planning for possible lower funding but that there are no specific staffing actions to announce.
Seattle-based Boeing Corp., recently named the prime contractor for the redesigned space station, said it might add some jobs to reflect its new role.
But on the whole, there “will probably be reductions for all the contractors on the program in order to meet the (lower) cost targets,” Jim Noblitt, head of Boeing’s space division in Huntsville, Ala., said in a company newsletter.
The space station has been in development since 1984, and the project figures to get funding for at least one more year, with the Senate this week expected to vote in favor of the scaled-down version. But the project faces a precarious future.
Because the construction of the station is several years behind schedule and several billion dollars over its original budget, the project has lost much of its support from Congress.
Earlier this summer, the House narrowly approved a smaller and cheaper version of the station that was endorsed by President Clinton. The White House plan calls for a 27% reduction in funding for the space station program to $10.5 billion over five years, down from $14.4 billion. The new plans call for the redesigned station to be completed in five years.
The space station would be an orbiting laboratory able to hold five astronauts for up to a month. It would help scientists study long-term effects of space travel on humans and conduct advanced scientific research in biotechnology and metallurgy.
But more uncertainties were injected into the project earlier this month when the United States and Russia signed an accord that endorses Russia’s participation in building the space station.
John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, said Russia’s involvement could enhance political support for the faltering project.
At the same time, he noted, Russian participation could mean less work for U.S. contractors.
“The political context and character of the program is at a crucial turning point,” Logsdon said. “But will there be less work for specific (U.S.) contractors? We have to figure out whether we can work with Russian hardware.”
All of which has made space station contractors very nervous.
For Rocketdyne, the program is critical because the company derives one-third of its $1 billion in annual revenue from the station work, which includes the design of solar ray batteries, switch gears and cabling equipment.
Anne McCauley, a spokeswoman at McDonnell Douglas, said that if Russian participation is “going to cause us to take a major hit on jobs, we would like to ask the government to take a second look at that.”