Washington » President Barack Obama wants to outsource future space flights to private companies, a move that, while expected, could have disastrous impacts for workers in northern Utah.
Obama's budget blueprint scraps NASA's Constellation program, aimed at launching manned missions back to the moon by 2020. That move would also stop the production of the Ares rocket, which would send a newly constructed shuttle out of Earth's orbit.
The end of the Ares program could result in the loss of hundreds of jobs at Alliant Techsystems, a company that builds solid rocket motors for the government near Brigham City and employs 3,500 people in Utah.
Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican whose district includes ATK's facilities, said Obama is hammering "another nail in the coffin" of the U.S. rocket program. ATK employees have already suffered three rounds of layoffs because of expiring government contracts, with another pending, and this move, Bishop said, could cost the company 2,000 jobs in Utah and 7,000 jobs nationwide.
"This is a stupid time to cut 7,000 jobs nationwide," Bishop said after a speech to the Utah Legislature. "This is going to put us behind the Russians and Chinese in space exploration."
ATK said in a statement that it hopes in the months ahead that Congress and the administration hold on to a program in which Americans already have invested nearly $9 billion.
"It is not clear why at this time the nation would consider abandoning a program of such historic promise and capability -- with so much invested," the company said, adding that it believes Congress will work toward a budget that recognizes that.
The Obama administration defended its proposal to end the $3.5 billion project, saying NASA could not complete the Constellation program without a huge budget increase and even then the government would have to shift all funding from the International Space Station to the new space shuttle.
A report by the Government Accountability Office released Monday said the Ares project is running into technical problems and its costs have grown by $500 million since 2007.
Obama is following the recommendations made last year by a blue-ribbon panel that said pursuing privately operated space travel could happen faster and cost less than a government-owned program.
But critics such as Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, say with the retirement of the existing space shuttle, Obama's move essentially leaves the nation indebted to Russia, China and unproven commercial companies for all future space travel.
The senator backed the Ares program, calling it safe and cost effective.
"Ending it will devastate our industrial base, put us at a global competitive disadvantage, and cost us thousands of high-paying jobs in Utah at a time when we can least afford it," Bennett said in a statement. "The president is taking the future of NASA in the wrong direction, setting it back several years."
Of course, the president's budget lays out only his administration's suggested funding requirements. Congress will make the ultimate decisions, because it controls the purse strings.
And many members of Congress were very unreceptive to the idea of cutting the program, foreshadowing a political battle in the months to come.
Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on an appropriations subcommittee over NASA's budget, said Obama was setting up a "death march for the future of U.S. human space flight."
"Congress cannot and will not sit back and watch the reckless abandonment of sound principles, a proven track record, a steady path to success, and the destruction of our human space flight program," Shelby said.
In other parts of the budget, Obama's funding priorities could mean a boon for some Utah sectors. The budget would increase funding for Pell Grants by about $334.6 million for Utah students, the White House estimated, as well as a boost of $367.7 million for schools, students and teachers.
The budget also includes $465.8 million for improving and expanding the state's roads, airports and water and sewer installations. And it chips in another $90.7 million for housing assistance, according to White House estimates based on state formula spending.
The administration also proposes cutting a tax provision that it said gave preferential treatment to oil and gas companies and provides an unneeded incentive for production. The cuts, the White House said, would eliminate market distortions created by a subsidy to the oil and gas industry.
Rep. Doc Hastings, the ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, called that bunk.
"Once again, the president's budget contains page after page of taxes on oil and natural gas that will reduce American energy production and destroy American jobs when unemployment is at 10 percent," Hastings said.
The administration also proposed jettisoning a program that takes fees collected by coal companies and gives them to states to seal off abandoned mines. Utah has sealed off all of its abandoned coal mines, officials previously said, though it is eligible for money from this year to shore up those seals even more rigidly.
The president's budget also proposes new incentives for a nuclear energy renaissance, such as more than $50 billion in loan guarantees, more than three times the usual allotted amount.
Utah's Bennett had unsuccessfully pushed for a similar increase in the stimulus act and praised the president's inclusion in his budget plan.
"Senator Bennett believes the loan guarantee program can have a significant and lasting impact on our energy sector," Bennett spokeswoman Tara DiJulio said. "The program provides an opportunity for innovative energy projects to access additional private capital, while minimizing the financial risk to the taxpayers."
Robert Gehrke and Brandon Loomis contributed to this report.