NASA workers fight layoffs, seek spaceship aid

National Aeronautics and Space Administration employees have asked congressional appropriators to adopt fiscal 2007 language forbidding layoffs at the agency and to grant sufficient funding for the next-generation manned spaceship.

The space agency had planned to cut up to 2,673 employees by the end of fiscal 2006, but senators proposed a moratorium on layoffs, said Lee Stone, a vice president for legislative affairs at NASA's largest union, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers.

"Unless the fiscal 2007 appropriations language includes an explicit prohibition against reductions in force, it will be all too easy for management to fall back on the misguided policy of blaming its workforce for the woes created by an under-funded presidential mandate and of trying to lay off technical staff to make ends meet," he said.

The Dec. 22 letter was sent to new Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.; new House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis.; Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.; and Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., as they prepare to finalize fiscal 2007 spending.

Stone said that non-managerial scientists and technicians would be the likely victims of any workforce trimming.

"We are talking about space scientists working on understanding our solar system and on finding other earth-like planets in other solar systems; earth scientists working on protecting our home planet from potentially disastrous climate change; human factors researchers working to make U.S. aviation safer and more efficient; and life scientists working to make the exploration promises made at headquarters about extended human presence on the moon and ultimately a manned Mars mission actually possible," he said.

The letter, signed by union President Gregory Junemann, also proposes that the Appropriations committees set the fiscal 2007 budget at least $305.9 million -- 1.9 percent -- higher than the fiscal 2006 level of $16.5 million to "continue a minimal, sustainable pace for the development of NASA's critically needed next-generation spacecraft."

In their proposal, the employees "acknowledge current fiscal realities," Junemann writes, adding that they will accept moderate science and aeronautics program cuts in order to sustain the president's goal of sending humans back to the moon and eventually Mars. "However, we oppose the president's proposed deeper cuts that would seriously hamper NASA's science and aeronautics programs, as well as harm its scientific and engineering capabilities."

Rejection of the requested increase in funding will lead to schedule slips for future launches, the letter added.

The renamed House Science and Technology Committee expects to hold budget review hearings on NASA's funds for the existing space shuttle, the next-generation spaceship and the International Space Station, committee spokeswoman Alisha Prather said.

The panel also plans to examine areas such as Federal Aviation Administration research and development and air-traffic control.

In terms of layoffs, Mikulski said, "I do not want any RIFs [reductions in force] at NASA this year or any other year."

NASA officials declined to comment on the budget until it is signed into law. NASA headquarters spokesman David Steitz said, "Regardless of budget deliberations, RIFs are not anticipated."

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