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NJ Daily / BEYOND THE BELTWAY

No Longer the Final Frontier

NASA’s changing priorities can have a major economic impact on communities, but it’s not always a bad thing.

Buoyancy: NASA facilities remain afloat.(Pat Sullivan/AP)

photo of Kenneth Chamberlain
February 26, 2012

Whether the priority is to return Americans to the moon, take humans to Mars, or develop a powerful—and expensive—space telescope, from the public’s perspective the goals of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration can often seem ill-defined.

The release earlier this month of NASA’s budget proposal, which would reset some of the agency’s priorities yet again, didn’t help clarify the situation.

Media reports about this churning of priorities tend to focus on the big-picture issues of what it means for America’s future in space. Often overlooked, however, is what it means for the communities where NASA has facilities and contractors. How do they fare in adapting to the uncertainty?

 

For some communities, such as those on Florida’s Space Coast, the loss of jobs has been in the thousands, especially with the end of the shuttle program. But another community—and at least one contractor—are faring well.

Huntsville, Ala., home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, would seem to be particularly vulnerable to changes in space-program priorities and funding levels.

“NASA and its support-contractor employment has declined by about 1,200 positions” in recent years as a result of changes in the agency’s missions, said Patricia McCarter, director of communications for the Chamber of Commerce of Huntsville/Madison County, in an e-mail.

But it turns out that NASA accounts for a relatively small portion of overall federal spending in the Huntsville area. Most federal money there is going increasingly to defense, including the Missile Defense Agency; the Space and Missile Defense Command; and the Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development, and Engineering Center—which are all located at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, as is Marshall.

“Fortunately for us, the military operations on Redstone Arsenal … have grown steadily over the course of the last seven years to an all-time high of 36,000 [jobs] today,” said McCarter, who noted that many of the skills that NASA’s contract workers possess are easily transferable to the defense industry.

This isn’t to say that space is not a significant focus of the Huntsville economy, but to adapt, many local businesses “have diversified into [Defense Department] contracts while maintaining their availability to perform work on the SLS [NASA’s Space Launch System] and ongoing space science programs,” according to McCarter. “There is still a need to put things into space and much of that expertise resides in the Tennessee Valley,” she added.

It’s not just localities that are adapting to NASA’s shifting priorities. The agency’s contractors also have to shift, but for at least one major contractor—and the agency itself, really—adaptation has its benefits.

Raytheon Technical Services has trained every U.S. astronaut in the past nine years in facilities it runs, according to its president, John Harris.

One of those training facilities is the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The lab includes a 6.2-million-gallon pool in which astronauts can practice operating in a near weightless environment, similar to that of space.

Although the shuttle program has ended and there’s no firm timetable as to when NASA will get back to the business of sending astronauts into space, the pool isn’t going unused.

In an “environment of reduced costs and budget constraints, there’s still a need to maintain a capability for manned spaceflight,” said Harris, whose father worked for Raytheon on the original Apollo program. This capability includes training current astronauts, including Americans who travel to the International Space Station, on how to work in a space environment (the pool includes an ISS mock-up).

NASA’s deputy director of mission operations, Stephen Koerner, agrees. “There’s still a need for a facility to train for spacewalks,” Koerner told Offshore Engineer, a trade magazine focused on the global offshore oil and gas industry.

To help defray the costs of maintaining the lab, NASA asked Raytheon in 2010 to find users for the pool to help defray the costs of its maintenance—at least until the demand for space uses increases in coming years. But in finding users, there “was a sense of nervousness that we couldn’t bring in just anybody,” Koerner said.

In stepped Petrofac Training Services, an international company that provides a variety of services to the oil and gas industry. Raytheon, with NASA’s authorization, signed a five-year agreement with the company that began last December. Petrofac offers a series of water-survival training courses to offshore oil and gas workers at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, which “provides trainees one of the most realistic environments available globally for learning critical elements of water survival,” according to Offshore Engineer.

As a side benefit to the deal, Harris said, the pool will be at the ready for more intensive astronaut training when U.S. space flights resume. For NASA, Raytheon, and Petrofac, it’s a “win-win-win” situation, he said.

While Huntsville and Raytheon were certainly affected by NASA’s changing priorities—and are still being affected—both the city and the company have found ways to keep going.

This article appears in the February 27, 2012 edition of NJ Daily.

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