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WASHINGTON — Houston's Johnson Space Center confronts mounting long-term uncertainty as the White House and Congress flat-line NASA's spending and elected officials cast about for a galvanizing rationale to expand manned space exploration.
The showcase shuttle program that relies on JSC's Mission Control is down to its last two flights. On Friday, the primary shuttle contractor, United Space Alliance, announced it will lay off 800 of its 2,200 employees in the greater Houston area shortly after NASA retires the fleet later this summer.
And the job cuts come on the same week that Texans, who lost a bid to "bring the shuttle home" for public display in Houston, have been reduced to fashioning a quixotic campaign to wrest a retired shuttle orbiter from one of the four rival locations that won the competition on Tuesday.
The compromise on spending that worked its way through Congress on Thursday promised $18.5 billion to NASA for the current fiscal year, less than what the space agency got last year and what Congress initially authorized for this year.
And it was a precursor to White House plans to begin each year's budget bargaining for the next five years with the same steady request for $18.7 billion.
The measure cleared the way for the Obama administration to formally end the back-to-the-moon Constellation program and turn to developing commercial spacecraft to service the International Space Station so NASA can focus on next-generation technology for astronauts' eventual deep-space exploration to asteroids and Mars.
For Texas' elected officials, that, at least, is a good thing.
"When President Obama announced his vision for NASA a year ago, I thought it could be the end of America's pre-eminence in space and certainly a devastating blow to the JSC workforce," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. "But we have made a very strong comeback and we are right now in the center of everything."
Tucked into the 459-page legislation are some short-term benefits to JSC.
The compromise provides $1.2 billion to continue work on the Houston-based Orion crew capsule program, protecting 600 area jobs. The $5.5 billion for space operations helps sustain JSC's round-the-clock management of the space station and provide mission control for the additional shuttle flight this summer mandated by Congress. Another $3.1 billion for so-called cross-agency support protects 825 JSC-related jobs.
"We are committed to living within our means in these tough fiscal times - and we are committed to carrying out our ambitious new plans for exploration and discovery," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
NASA and JSC have "lost some momentum because of all the budget battles," cautions U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston. But the deal worked out between the White House and Congress "gets us past cancellation of Constellation and puts an emphasis on manned space travel" in the tougher budget environment that lies ahead.
But the short-term gains mask long-range challenges.
"My biggest concern remains a continued lack of leadership and no clear mission for NASA," says Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, whose congressional district includes JSC. "It's encouraging that NASA will have funding for the next-generation heavy-lift vehicle to get us out of low-Earth orbit. But clearly work remains in securing the long-term mission for NASA and the means to achieve it."
Hutchison conceded the space agency faces challenges until it can rekindle "the drama of landing on the moon."
Research on the space station "is going to take awhile to get that cure for cancer or osteoporosis, but when it happens I think it's going to regenerate the excitement of our early spaceflights," said the 18-year Senate veteran.
Yet, some outside experts worry that public and congressional support will wane waiting for dramatic manned missions to asteroids by 2025 or Mars orbit a decade later.
"We are as uncertain about the future of human space flight today as we were … 50 years ago," says space historian John Logsdon. "Until our national leadership decides space is truly part of America's future, we will continue celebrating anniversaries of past milestones rather than pioneering the future."
Houston suffered a more symbolic blow when NASA allocated four shuttle orbiters for public display at locations other than Space Center Houston. Bolden, a former astronaut and longtime Clear Lake resident, awarded shuttles to the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C., the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
The fourth, test-bed shuttle Enterprise, was allocated to New York City's Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, which centers on a World War II carrier that plucked returning astronauts from the sea in early manned missions.
"It is clear (that) political favors trumped common sense," complained Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Ten House members, including Houston-area Reps. Olson, Gene Green, Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green and Ted Poe, introduced legislation Friday seeking to designate Houston the retirement home for one of the flown shuttles.
"Instead of relying on political guidance systems, these decisions must be steered by history and logic," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, author of the measure.
Chronicle reporter Eric Berger contributed to this report.