NASA future uncertain as Shuttle production ends, Constellation programme cancelled

NASA’s future is looking very uncertain, with its Shuttle tank provider ending production and the US Senate passing a bill to cancel the space agency’s Constellation programme.

The first bit of bad news for NASA came with the announcement that Lockheed Martin, which makes Space Shuttle external tanks, will end production of the components after 37 years of operation at the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.

The company sent its final tank to the Kennedy Space Centre on September 27, one of 136 external tanks it created over the last few decades. The tank will be used in one of NASA’s remaining Space Shuttle launches. NASA is only authorised to launch three more Shuttles, one on November 1, another on February 26 next year, and a further final launch at an unannounced date.

“The Space Shuttle has provided a pathway for America’s leadership in space exploration,” said Manny Zulueta, vice-president of Lockheed Martin and site executive of the Michoud Assembly Facility. “Working alongside NASA on the External Tank has been a gratifying and historic experience for our employees.”

The end of production has resulted in more than half of Lockheed Martin’s staff being made redundant. At the beginning of this year it had 1,438 employees, but now it has roughly 600. Some of this number are only being kept on as part of the launch and landing elements of the fnal Space Shuttle launches, which means their jobs could be in jeopardy soon afterwards.

NASA is also being forced to cancel its Constellation programme after the Senate passed a bill this week, which limits NASA’s spending to $58 billion over the next three years. The Constellation project intended to send astronauts to the International Space Station, the Moon, and Mars, but Obama wanted the plans cancelled as part of attempts to address the global economic crisis. He is set to sign the bill cancelling the programme soon.