Space center ‘anxious’ about future

The director of Johnson Space
Center said Monday he is “very
anxious” about the future of his sprawling facility in the Clear Lake
area.

In his first public comments since
the release of President Barack Obama’s proposed NASA budget last week, Mike
Coats said the space center will have to find new missions besides the
International Space Station to replace the waning space shuttle program and the
seemingly doomed Constellation program.

“We have three large programs and we’re
going to go down to one this year,” Coats said. “That’s a big impact, so we’re
very anxious to figure out the path forward.”

Of the 17,000 civil servants and
contractors who are funded through Johnson
Space Center’s
programs, 7,000 work under the shuttle and Constellation programs.

The end of the shuttle program this
year — Endeavour’s successful launch to orbit early Monday is one of five final
flights — was widely anticipated with the near completion of the international
space station.

But Coats said Obama’s proposed
wholesale cancellation of Constellation — NASA’s next-generation exploration
program that entailed development of rockets to carry humans to orbit, the moon
and beyond as well as a versatile crew capsule — was not expected.

“The Constellation program being
canceled was a total surprise to us,” he said. “A week ago we found out like
everyone else.”

Originally known as the Manned Spacecraft
Center, Johnson’s primary
tasks are to oversee human spaceflight, manage space operations and train astronauts.

There will still be a need for this
in overseeing operations of the space station through the year 2020, but as of
now there are no firm plans when NASA may launch astronauts beyond low-Earth
orbit.

And without the shuttle, NASA will
be sending a handful of astronauts to space each year, rather than dozens.

“It’s hard,” Coats said. “I’m not
good at spinning things. I don’t know, and that’s the bottom line. I can’t
imagine that we’re going to give up our core competencies, so I expect that we
will get a reasonable amount of funding. But I can’t promise that we’re going
to replace all the jobs.”

Coats and NASA administrator
Charles Bolden met with reporters after Bolden spoke with Johnson employees in Houston.

“The workers are hurting,” Bolden
acknowledged.

Bolden said he could not say what
new programs the Houston space center will attract in the wake of Constellation
that may account for some of the jobs lost.

“We’re at the very beginning of
trying to understand what this really does mean,” said Bolden, himself a former
astronaut. “We can’t give any answers until we find out what the follow-on programs
will be, and what people we can transition to them.”