Thursday, March 17, 2005

Space flight and jobs in Utah

On March 1 NASA released its RFP for the next generation of manned space systems, the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). NASA expects the CEV to replace the Space Shuttle, which has its final mission planned for 2010, just five years from now.

NASA’s plan calls for selecting a primary contractor by 2008, an unmanned flight by 2011, and the first manned flight by 2014. A trip to orbit the moon is scheduled for 2015, accomplishing what Apollo 8 did 47 years earlier. This trip is to be followed by three lunar landing missions that will finally return us to Neil Armstrong’s 1969 stomping grounds.

This will complete phase 1, or spiral 1, of Project Constellation. Spiral 2 envisions building a station on the moon for long-term habitation starting in 2020. No projected date has currently been set for spiral 3, which would take humans to Mars. (See PDF from NASA for details).

There is a great deal of question as to how NASA’s vision is to be achieved. A few months ago NASA invited 11 companies to provide their ideas on how to do this. You can read about it and find links to the companies’ presentations here. Some of the presentations are quite interesting.

President Bush hit the nail on the head when he said, “the cause of exploration and discovery … is a desire written in the human heart.” While the space program has long had its detractors, most Americans agree that we need to pursue a manned space program.

What does all of this mean for Utah? The solid rocket motors that hurl the Space Shuttle out of the earth’s atmosphere are built at ATK Thiokol in Promontory, Utah. With about 3500 employees, Thiokol is one of Utah’s largest employers north of Davis County. (It has another 1000+ employees at other Utah locations). The company, which is nearly six decades old and has been through a variety of ownership arrangements, was purchased by Alliant Tech Systems (ATK) of Minnesota in 2002.

At one point the company had over 6000 employees before falling on lean times in its Commercial and Strategic Systems division due to cuts in the nation’s defense program. About a decade ago the company downsized dramatically in a series of layoffs. However, the company has recently added about 400 employees and plans to add another 500 during the next fiscal year.

ATK has been working to strengthen Thiokol’s leadership ranks by bringing on Ron Dittemore, former head of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, as the company president last year. Two former astronauts have also been added to the upper ranks over the past few months.

It’s no secret that the majority of Thiokol’s revenue comes from its contracts to provide solid rocket motors for the Space Shuttle. The remainder comes from providing rocket motors and related parts for unmanned NASA flights, defense systems, and some commercial systems. To understand why this model could be a problem, refer to the first paragraph of this article. What does Thiokol plan to do when its lucrative shuttle contracts dry up in a few years?

A large part of the company’s strategic plan calls for convincing NASA that any new manned space flight system is likely to be less expensive and more reliable by building on the reusable solid rocket motors that Thiokol has a track record of producing (see Standard Examiner story).

The company has a good argument. Its motors are tried and proven and are already in production. They might not be as flashy as the liquid and nuclear motors that some vendors are suggesting, but we know they are reliable and cost effective. However, this strategy sounds an awful lot like having all of the eggs in one basket for the company. What will Thiokol do if NASA doesn’t buy it?

Thiokol is working to make sure that doesn’t happen. That’s why the company’s upper ranks now include two former astronauts and a former NASA bigwig. The company is also working aggressively to land a variety of other contracts, but if it doesn’t land the big NASA contract, it would be nearly impossible to bring in enough smaller contracts to compensate. Company leadership is confident that there won’t be layoffs in the future.

Americans will continue to invest in the space program for now. Will that continue to translate into jobs in northern Utah? Only time will tell.

No comments: