CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida The U.S. space agency NASA plans to eliminate 900 manufacturing jobs over the next five months as it prepares to retire its space shuttle fleet in 2010, NASA officials said on Thursday.
The first 160 layoff notices go out on Friday, primarily to contractors producing the space shuttle fuel tanks outside New Orleans and the shuttle solid rocket boosters in Utah.
The prime contractors for those components are Lockheed Martin and ATK Thiokol.
"This is the first significant loss of manufacturing capability," shuttle program manager John Shannon told reporters.
The three-ship shuttle fleet is due to be retired after eight more flights to finish building and equipping the International Space Station and a final servicing call to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Managers on Thursday settled on a May 11 launch date for shuttle Atlantis' 11-day mission to Hubble. Liftoff is set for 2:01 p.m. EDT (7:01 p.m. British time) from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.
NASA officials said that they were monitoring the nationwide alert over the new swine flu, or influenza A (H1N1) flu virus, but so far the disease was not affecting any of its operations.
"We're not doing anything special at this point," said NASA's associate administrator for space operations Bill Gerstenmaier.
NASA plans to replace the shuttles with Apollo-style capsules that in addition to travelling to the space station will be able to fly astronauts to the moon's surface.
Hoping to keep the new spaceships, named Orion, on track for a 2015 debut, NASA said earlier this week it had decided to produce only one version of the capsule with room for four astronauts, rather than the six-seater version that had been planned for flights to the station.
Money for developing Orion and its launcher, called Ares, is coming from funds that previously went towards shuttle operations and station construction.
The shuttle is the only vehicle that can service orbiting satellites, such as the Hubble telescope, as well as handle massive construction efforts, like assembly of the space station.
NASA has made four previous servicing calls to Hubble to repair equipment and install new science instruments.
The observatory, which was launched in 1990, has been instrumental in reshaping scientists' understanding of the universe and expanding public knowledge of astronomy.
Its observations have been used by astronomers to determine that space is expanding at an increasingly faster rate, that massive black holes live in the hearts of most galaxies and that new planets likely are born in flat disks of gas and dust that circle stars.
The final visit to Hubble features five spacewalks to install a new camera, resuscitate two failed instruments and other work. NASA hopes the mission will leave Hubble in good enough shape to continue working until at least 2014 when an more sensitive replacement telescope is put into orbit.
(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Eric Walsh)