PROMONTORY -- ATK Space Systems laid off 134 employees Tuesday, the latest in a drumbeat of layoffs since 2009, when it started preparing for the end of its 37-year contract to build motors for the space shuttle.
A spokeswoman for the company said, however, that this round could be close to the end. "Right now we're really optimistic about what we have coming up in the future," Trina Patterson said.
Tuesday's layoffs affected workers in Box Elder County, Clearfield and Magna, and brought to 2,100 the number of employees the company has lost, a 45 percent cut of the company's work force, leaving it with 2,400. Most of those are at the Box Elder County facility in Promontory, but some are also in Clearfield and Magna.
Patterson said these layoffs are "significantly smaller than the ones we have conducted in the past, and we're just getting closer to that skill mix we need for our future contracts."
She said the employees laid off were all given separation packages that include up to 26 weeks of severance pay, job help and other benefits. She said 50 of the employees volunteered to leave.
In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Rob Bishop said, "I lament the loss of any job in Utah and was saddened by the news of today's layoffs at ATK. Many of these skilled and dedicated workers are my friends and neighbors, so I am especially aware of the impact this will have on our communities as well as the space industry."
The company called ATK Space Systems has gone through several ownership changes since the 1960s, when it set up operations in western Box Elder County to build solid rocket motors for the military. In 1974, the company, then called Thiokol Chemical Corporation, won the contract to build solid rocket motors for the space shuttle. It tested the first motor in 1978.
ATK is now working on building commercial motors for a proposed Liberty heavy-lift vehicle in conjunction with the European Space Agency, and finishing work on the Ares rocket motor, which still has one test scheduled.
Ares is part of the Constellation Program that President Barack Obama eliminated from the budget in favor of commercial vehicles, but Congress is still working to keep it in.
The space shuttle has two more launches scheduled, on April 29 and June 28. ATK Space Systems pinned its hopes on the Constellation program, announced by President George W. Bush with the goal of revisiting the moon and eventually reaching Mars.
Constellation uses solid rocket booster motors similar to space shuttle motors, only with five segments instead of four, and ATK expected the contract to continue.
However, following recommendations of a special commission, Obama last year announced he was removing Constellation from the budget in favor of seeking commercially built manned space vehicles. That would effectively eliminate ATK's solid rocket motors.
Bishop, in his statement, said he's still working to preserve ATK's contracts.
"Just today, I met with Navy officials regarding their missile production systems and they clearly realize that as NASA continues to fight against the legislative mandate to produce a heavy-lift rocket, it will drive up their cost for Navy missile defense just as it drives up the Air Force's cost for missile defense.
"This is not just about space exploration or even jobs. The Administration's efforts to diminish our robust space exploration program are detrimental to the industrial base that builds our national defense systems, which in turn, is making our country less secure."
Bishop said he remains "a staunch advocate for maintaining NASA's manned space flight program, the Ares rocket, and most importantly the role that Utahns continue to play in our nation's ability to maintain leadership in global space exploration."
In February, ATK announced it was entering the competition to build a commercial manned vehicle for NASA by joining with the European Space Agency. ATK's Ares solid-fuel booster motor will be paired with the Ariane-5 liquid-fueled motor to make what it is calling "Liberty."
The ATK rocket will compete with programs being developed by Space Exploration Technologies Corporation and the United Launch Alliance, a consortium of Boeing and Lockheed-Martin.