HAMPTON -- They are calm now, hopeful that the storm is over.
The wind tunnels at NASA Langley Research Center are humming again, and there's work on a big space project now and - perhaps more important - in the future. A new law says nobody can be laid off for a while.
But some people fear that the calm is only the eye of a hurricane and that the worst lies ahead.
"There's a sense of relief but also a sense of dread," says Marie Lane, head of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2755, which represents Langley workers.
In the past 18 months, about 600 workers - half of them civil service - have left the center after a budget reduction necessitated a cutback. Most left in the past year, and more might have lost their jobs if Congress hadn't added $60 million to the aeronautics budget.
With some of those left, "it's a sense of relief because, 'Whew, they didn't get me this time,' " Lane says. "But there's a sense of dread because of what could happen next time."
It's next time.
On Feb. 6, the president presents his budget proposal to Congress. Money for aeronautics for all of NASA in fiscal 2007 is expected to be reduced almost $185 million, to $727.6 million - and to remain relatively flat thereafter.
Langley's core business is aeronautics.
Legislation passed by Congress in December prohibits any NASA layoffs before March 16, 2007, but that isn't much of a future for employees whose average age is 47.
It's why NASA Langley is getting on board the president's space exploration initiative, which calls for a return to the moon by 2020 and a trip to Mars after that.
"There's a lot of aeronautical sciences work, guidance navigation control work, landing systems work - so that's exciting," says Lesa Roe, the new center director. "We're also looking very promising for some work in the launch abort system, and we're very engaged in the flight tests on the (crew launch vehicle) side.
"With all of that work ... it's really looking much more promising."
Shortly after President Bush proposed the space exploration program in January 2004, managers at Langley began to look for ways to get involved. They assessed the center's strengths in aerodynamics, structural materials and safety expertise, along with Earth science.
"We looked at our skill mix," says Rob Calloway, manager of the recently established Crew Exploration Vehicle Program Implementation Office at Langley. "(Now) we've got a significant role in the exploration program. ... We've got a significant amount of work, and we want to do a good job with that. We think that will be the best insurance for more work in the future."
A year ago, talk was of a reduction in force, of closing wind tunnels - perhaps even closing the center itself.
"We were talking about reducing anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 people," says Lelia Vann, director of Langley's Science Directorate.
"Although we have a lot of people who have been here a long time, we actually also have a lot of people who only have five years here or less. They were concerned about their jobs."
Her directorate lost about 25 people to buyouts or moves to other NASA agencies.
Those who were left scrambled for security. NASA is all about competition, and they submitted 106 proposals for projects to try to win money in 2005. They submitted 96 proposals in 2004. Those numbers were up from the 60 in 2003 and 40 in 2002 that were generated by a staff about 25 percent larger.
Vann says usually about half those submissions are accepted.
"They were trying very, very hard to get fully funded, hoping that would keep them RIF-free," says Vann, using the in-house slang for "reduction in force."
"It was very stressful ... because we didn't know what was going to happen."
It worked. Now the science directorate is fully financed by NASA.
"They seem much happier and at ease, with a lot more security," she says.
TAKEOFF AND LANDING
Langley understands that developing a spacecraft means aeronautics.
"The most dangerous time for a space vehicle is on launch and re-entry," says Roy Harris, former director of aeronautics at the center and now technical adviser for the National Aeronautics Support Team in Hampton.
"It's the most risky part. That's where we lost both shuttles, and that's where aeronautical expertise can come to bear."
Challenger exploded shortly after launch Jan. 28, 1986, and Columbia broke up upon re-entry Feb. 1, 2003.
"It's been called 'six minutes of terror,' " says Calloway. "The entry, descent and landing is a very complicated timeline."
Six minutes of terror offers years of employment opportunity.
"We do aerodynamics well (and) heating well," Calloway said. "We're testing here, doing analysis here."
When someone is working on space exploration, pay generally comes from that budget, rather than from an aerodynamics budget. There are people at Langley who are getting some of their pay from space, the rest from aeronautics.
The wind tunnels, thought to be in danger a year ago, are fully subscribed for 2006, and some work for 2007 is lined up now.
The new space program promises more.
"The space shuttle had 65,000 hours in wind tunnels at Langley," Harris reminds.
Besides getting the spacecraft through the atmosphere in either direction, there's the question of collecting data along the way - another Langley specialty - and landing it on the moon or Mars, then back on Earth. NASA wants a terrestrial return landing, rather than a water landing. That allows the spacecraft to be reusable.
Langley has jumped in there, too, in part with a symbol of its space-work past: the gantry.
The 240-foot-tall structure, which looks like something built from an Erector set, is a National Historic Landmark from its days in facilitating Apollo moon-program training.
The gantry allows testing of the landing systems, whether it be on air bags, wheels or whatever.
Even more immediately, a folded-wing airplane to fly over Mars to study its atmosphere is about ready at Langley. Were it to be accepted by NASA - it's in competition with other ideas - "that would be a very good thing for us," says Jerry Newsom, director of Langley's Aeronautics Directorate.
A BRAIN DRAIN
For all the optimism, there remains a cloud.
Some experienced people no longer work there, for various reasons.
"Some I talked with went into retirement," says Newsom. "Some said, 'I'm going to make room for some other people.' There was a lot of that."
But others left because of the climate."They are people who were getting other job offers all the time - nationally and internationally recognized people in their field," says Harris. "In many cases, it was simply because they were tired of working toward a cliff every year, only to be saved at the last minute by Congress."
Their loss has an effect on those who remain because "one of the key roles for people who are experienced and knowledgeable is mentoring," Harris says.
Those who have been mentored agree.
"It impacts morale because it's harder to do a job when we don't have people with experience to go to," says Lane, a wind tunnel technician before working with the union. "In the past, in the wind tunnels, people would go to you and say, 'We need to do something,' and you had somebody to go to who ... had been there a long time. Now you don't."
Newsom acknowledges the losses in "some critical skills" and adds, "We're going to hire some people in some skill areas."
He says that about 25 people will be hired and that the loss of experienced mentors "doesn't mean that those who have been mentored won't step up and do the mentoring.
"We still have a lot of good, experienced people."
Some point to Michael Griffin being named NASA's administrator as a reason for optimism. That's because he has a background with the agency.
Others point to a national aeronautics policy, mandated by Congress to be formulated by the Bush administration.
Lisa Porter, new associate administrator of the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, is tasked with helping. "She has talked of going back to the basics," Newsom says.
In that, Porter means getting away from demonstration projects - such as building a sonic boom demonstrator, a recent Langley task - and determining how things fly and how to make them fly better.
The policy "will tell us what we're going to do," says Newsom, who welcomes it as a force for stability.
But, he said, "funding will tell us how much."
In this case, the bottom line is the bottom line.
"We have a new director, new programs, more space, more (crew exploration vehicle) work," says Lane. "Everybody's working, and that's great.
"But I'm running into more people saying that after March 16 (2007), 'Are we going to have jobs?' We know the center has not forgotten what happened last year."
That's why the focus is on the future and its connection with the past. In one case, with the distant past.
"I worked on shuttle re-entry in 1981," Calloway says. "When ... that shuttle flew back and all that data that I helped pull together was helping it fly back - when that thing re-entered, I know how I felt.
"I'd like to get that feeling again."
Secret Service chief in line for top customs post
Republic Washington Bureau
Jan. 31, 2006 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON - President Bush will nominate the director of the Secret Service to run Customs and Border Protection, the chief agency responsible for guarding U.S. borders.
The White House announced Monday that Bush had chosen W. Ralph Basham, 62, a veteran Secret Service agent and manager, to be the next commissioner of CBP, pending Senate confirmation.
Part of the Department of Homeland Security, CBP oversees the Border Patrol and immigration and customs inspectors at land-border crossings, airports and seaports. The agency employs about 41,000 people. Its top job had been vacant since late November, with Deputy Commissioner Deborah Spero serving as acting boss
At the Secret Service, Basham has been director since 2003 and helped oversee its transition from the Treasury Department to Homeland Security.
He was chief of staff at the Transportation Security Administration when that agency was established and ran the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, which trains agents for the Border Patrol and other federal law enforcement organizations.
If confirmed, Basham would move to an agency on the front lines of the U.S. effort to stop illegal immigration and prevent terrorists from entering the country.
By choosing a veteran federal cop for the job, Bush may escape controversy of the sort generated when he tapped Julie Myers, a lawyer with close ties to other Bush administration officials but little law enforcement background, to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Earlier this month, Bush gave Myers a recess appointment to that job, which didn't require confirmation.
Like Myers, Basham has no experience in immigration or border security. But administration officials on Monday pointed to his long resume in other law enforcement fields as proof of his qualifications.
"Ralph's extensive law enforcement career, his work internationally and within several components of the department make him a superb fit to lead CBP's vital mission," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a statement.
But the president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union for about 10,000 Border Patrol agents, predicted Basham will keep the agency from making aggressive changes in the way it seeks to prevent illegal border crossings.
"He's a safe choice," said T.J. Bonner, union president. "Of course, that spells trouble for the men and women out on the front lines because it means that nothing is going to change.
"We're going to have someone who continues to spout the company line."