After almost three decades, NASA's space shuttle program is nearing the finish line. Atlantis, which landed Friday after a trip to the International Space Station, is scheduled to make its last trip in May. Barring delays or a change of heart from Congress and the White House, the other two shuttles, Discovery and Endeavor, also will be grounded for good by this time next year.
Unfortunately, the economic turmoil for Florida's Space Coast is just getting started. Shuttle contractors for NASA already have begun cutting jobs there in anticipation of the program's end. Last month, more than 250 positions were eliminated.
If shuttles are retired as planned, a small army of highly skilled, well-paid workers will lose their jobs; NASA has put the number at 7,000. Thousands more jobs that depend on them also will disappear. It could be five years or more before the next manned space program, Constellation, is ready to launch from Kennedy Space Center.
With such a disaster looming for the region's economy, it's imperative for federal, state and local officials together to explore every reasonable opportunity to keep this work force employed and productive.
Such an opportunity was proposed recently by the head of Space Florida, the agency charged with developing the industry in the state, and the president of United Space Alliance, the shuttle's lead private contractor. Under their proposal, NASA would transfer to another government agency — perhaps to Space Florida — its Shuttle Logistics Depot, a Cape Canaveral complex of machine shops and labs that have supported the program.
United Space Alliance would then use the complex, its equipment and — most important — its work force of 300 engineers, technicians and machinists to produce and refurbish equipment for the U.S. military. There's billions of dollars of this kind of work to be done because of the long U.S. deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Space Florida's president, Frank DiBello, says there's also a shortage of skilled manufacturing and refurbishing contractors for the military.
The transformation of the complex wouldn't be easy. It has been fabricating a small number of parts for NASA. As a military supplier, it would be making parts by the hundreds or thousands. And United Space Alliance would have to compete with other military contractors for work. But in demonstration projects, the complex already has produced equipment for the Air Force and the Army. It could compete for commercial jobs, too.
NASA would have to agree to hand over the complex — that's unlikely before the Obama administration officially comes out with its own plan for space sometime in the next few months. Some federal and state money might be needed to help the complex and its work force make the transformation.
There are many details to be worked out. But if planners can make the case that the project is worthy of public dollars, members of Congress from Florida and state legislators should be ready to go to bat for it.
If this seems like a lot of trouble for 300 jobs, DiBello believes the work force at the complex could multiply over time, and could create other high-wage jobs as suppliers spring up nearby to serve it.
The Space Coast will not find one or two employers to hire the thousands of workers left idle by NASA. The region will need to rebuild its economy piece by piece. Its leaders don't have any time to waste.