OGDEN -- ATK Space System officials were not comforted as they watched Republican presidential candidates talk about space flight during a recent televised debate.
High-profile candidates Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney each said NASA and its system of established suppliers is hide-bound and expensive. They insisted the nation look to private enterprise for innovation in future outer space operations.
And the man who holds the job those candidates want, President Barack Obama, is saying the same thing.
ATK is one of NASA's most established suppliers.
With the final shuttle launch, a huge chunk of ATK's business in Box Elder County will end. The company has already laid off more than 2,000 workers while the future of 2,000 remaining jobs depends on ATK's ability to compete with a flock of other companies scrambling for commercial space business.
ATK Space Systems has been the sole provider of space shuttle solid rocket booster motors since NASA's first launch. Constellation, the mission to Mars that President George W. Bush launched, would have continued that relationship with Ares solid rocket motor boosters using the same components as shuttle booster motors.
Then a special commission last year recommended that NASA shift to less-costly commercial space vehicles. The Obama administration cancelled Constellation.
U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, has joined with congressmen from states where parts of the shuttle are built to keep remnants of the program in the federal budget.
They are working to justify the program's cost. NASA's $18 billion budget is an inviting target to politicians demanding reduced federal spending.
Gingrich's comments in the debate were most damning:
"NASA has been an absolute case study in why bureaucracy can't innovate. If you take all the money we've spent at NASA since we landed on the moon and you had applied that money to incentives to the private sector, we would today probably have a permanent station on the moon, three or four permanent stations in space, (and) a new generation of lift vehicles."
Bishop said Gingrich's statement is nothing new.
"I've heard that before from him, and I think he clearly forgets a couple of things. Most of the funds that are spent by NASA go to the private sector as awards to private companies," he said, adding that he doesn't think Gingrich "realizes the interface of NASA and our national defense system," a point he has made time and again with respect to ATK.
Bishop said ATK's Box Elder division has unique facilities and personnel that need to be kept together for broader national defense purposes, not just space exploration.
"What you lose is the industrial base. You will never get it back, and I don't think Mr. Gingrich gets that, and I don't think this administration does, either."
Bishop added, "Congress has tried to direct them as best we can. We have put in recommendations (in the budget) that we don't want to lose our solid rocket motors, we don't want to lose our heavy lift."
Heavy lift refers to huge booster rockets capable of carrying large loads into space, either to service the International Space Station or for a mission to Mars.
The heavy lift program is separate from the space shuttle and Constellation. ATK is trying to win that contract as well, and the budget that Bishop and others wrote pretty much requires the ATK product.
"Unfortunately, this is an agency which, in this administration, is obstructionist. They refuse to follow what Congress tells them to do. They are doing their best to skirt around what Congress tells them to do," Bishop said.
In mid-June, Dan Dumbacher, a top official in NASA's exploration division, told the Orlando Sentinel the division is delaying the decision on what type of heavy lift vehicle to build because NASA's ultimate destination is Mars, "but there are multiple ways to get there. Where we go between now and then is what we have to figure out."
Meanwhile, NASA is preparing to use foreign and commercial rockets to carry astronauts back to the International Space Station.
For the next several years, it will buy rides on Russian capsules. After that, NASA hopes to have a U.S.-developed commercial rocket and is spending $300 million a year in development funds to help companies produce one.
ATK Space Systems is competing for that development money. It recently announced a joint venture with the European Space Agency, builders of the Ariane rocket, to build Liberty, a two-stage booster for future manned space missions.
Liberty should be ready for a test launch in 2014. So far only SpaceX has successfully launched an unmanned Dragon capsule and brought it back.
Kent Rominger, ATK's vice president of business development, flew five flights as a space shuttle astronaut and firmly believes America's position as a leader in space flight is at stake.
"You see statistics about how American students are lacking more and more in math and science skills. Space flight is something that inspires people to go into those.
"Economically, just the technology that gets spun off, that comes with being a technology leader."
Rominger said the lack of direction NASA is suffering through now means it needs the sort of heavy lift vehicle ATK is building based on the Ares booster.
"If we have a heavy lift vehicle, it can put over 100 metric tons into space. That is something nobody else can do. That will allow us to go back to the moon, an asteroid or Mars," said Rominger. "So even though we don't have a very clear mission, all of those missions involve a heavy lift vehicle that we do need."
Unlike other proposed systems, he said, Ares has a proven record because it uses existing technology, so development costs will be low.
"The real key message is we are working hard to make sure we supply a product to NASA and the nation that will keep leadership in human spaceflight in the world here."