NASA said yesterday that it plans to cut its full-time workforce by as much as 15.3 percent by the summer of 2006, putting 2,680 jobs at risk as the agency refocuses its activities toward President Bush's exploration initiative to the moon and Mars.
James L. Jennings, NASA's associate administrator for institutions and management, said employees will be allowed to compete against outside contractors for some of the endangered jobs.
"It's about reshaping the workforce, rather than strictly downsizing," Jennings said at a NASA headquarters news conference. "In the end, we may come close to balancing out the workforce."
Jennings estimated that 2,680 fewer positions would save the agency at least $268 million in pay and benefits -- $100,000 for each job. The jobs at risk are held by 15.3 percent of NASA's 17,475 full-time employees.
Jennings said cuts are "essential" in carrying out Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration" to put humans back on the moon by 2020 and eventually send them to Mars.
"You have to streamline the organization and size it to the mission you're trying to carry out," Jennings said.
The current cornerstone of the moon-Mars initiative is the development of a "Crew Exploration Vehicle" to succeed the space shuttle, which is scheduled to be phased out in 2010. NASA is examining proposals for the new spaceship.
Jennings said NASA has not prescribed job cuts for any of the agency's 10 centers, but the plan clearly targets five where buyouts have been offered. These include centers that focus on basic research or aeronautics, or both, among them the Langley Research Center at Hampton, Va. Centers focused on space science or human spaceflight appear largely exempt. These include Goddard Space Flight Center.
Jennings acknowledged that aeronautics is headed for important program cuts, reorienting it from doing "a lot of little things" to doing "a few big breakthrough things." Basic research will take a hit in favor of more nuts-and-bolts projects that contribute directly to the moon-Mars initiative.
Although NASA has not publicly singled out a center for job losses, anxiety has risen at several as directors have passed along the bad news. Officials at the John H. Glenn Research Center in Cleveland have said the installation may lose 700 of its 1,850 positions.
At the Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., officials this week offered buyouts to 1,400 of the 1,470 employees. At Langley, Director Roy D. Bridges said in a telephone interview that his center will probably lose 700 jobs.
"We're having to retune and reinvent ourselves, and the process is very painful," Bridges said. "There's a lot of fear around here, and some of it is justifiable."
On Feb. 3, NASA sent a letter to its aeronautics experts saying headquarters is "likely to close" 10 Langley facilities, including nine wind tunnels. "You send letters out because we're trying to decide whether to keep the tunnel open," Bridges said. "That scares people, even though we have a feeling that a lot of tunnels will stay open."
Jennings said NASA wants to restructure its workforce by August 2006 -- near the end of the 2006 fiscal year -- and be able to go forward aggressively with the moon-Mars initiative. The Crew Exploration Vehicle is scheduled for an unmanned test flight in 2008.
To reach its personnel goals, Jennings said, NASA is undertaking a series of measures that began with a first round of buyouts at the end of last year and will continue with more buyouts this year and job fairs to induce workers to move voluntarily from one center to another.
This will be followed by the "directed reassignment" of workers to other centers, he said, but sometime in late summer 2006, the agency may turn to layoffs to reach the final goal.
"The results of the first buyout [last December] were between 300 and 325 jobs, and if we get 400 in the next round that would be about as good as we could expect," Jennings said. Still, he added, "I'm confident that, in 18 months, I can work the remaining number down to a manageable size."