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NASA program to launch space shuttle workers into new jobs

The government initiated on Wednesday a competition for $35 million in federal grants aimed at creating jobs along Florida's space coast, where about 9,000 contractors, including information technology workers, could lose their jobs when NASA's shuttle program is shut down next year.

Award winners will be named by January 2011, pending congressional approval of NASA's fiscal 2011 budget. If lawmakers fail to provide the funding, the Obama administration will cancel the grants, according to a notice in Wednesday's Federal Register. The Commerce Department, which is administering the grants, is looking to fund initiatives that align with the region's desire for economic development in aviation and aerospace, clean technology, homeland security, IT and life sciences.

Applications are due Oct. 15.

The space coast, home to the Kennedy Space Center, encompasses a 72-mile long area of eastern Florida, about 35 miles outside Orlando. President Obama's national space agenda anticipates boosting the number of jobs along the space coast and nationwide, despite plans to end the shuttle program, which created many Florida jobs.

Employees currently staffed to the shuttle program in the space coast region represent a combined income of more than $600 million, according to an interagency task force on the space industry workforce. Boeing Co. and the United Space Alliance employ about 60 percent of the personnel.

"The termination of the space shuttle program will carry consequences for the workforce and economy of Florida's space coast and other communities across the country," the task force stated in its Aug. 15 report. The paper outlined recommendations for using $40 million in federal funding to ease the transition of NASA contractors to new jobs. Most of the workers are engineers, skilled flight hardware technicians, program support specialists, ground services and equipment specialists and other staff with scientific and management backgrounds.

The task force advised most of the money be used to establish the competitive grants. "This fast-tracked process will mitigate uncertainty that accompanies any transition, and will ensure that local governments, businesses and other entities have swift access to economic planning assistance," the task force wrote.

Commerce's Economic Development Administration, the lead agency for the grants, said awards for regional innovation clusters could be as large as $10 million. EDA wants applicants to focus on public-private capital investments.

"The culmination of the space shuttle program poses significant economic challenges for Florida's space coast region. However, the region is connected to a tremendous range of economic assets that can serve as the foundation for future business activity," agency officials wrote.

While EDA expects to provide grants, it could instead offer funding via cooperative agreements, if the amount of interaction between the agency and the awardee is particularly intensive. Generally, federal funding should cover -- at most -- 80 percent of the project, and the amount of money matched locally will be a competitive factor, according to the notice. Applicants also will be judged based on the degree to which their proposed projects would enhance the quality of the environment and utilize green products.

Project timelines will vary. For instance, an infrastructure project might last three or more years until construction is completed, while a technology transfer and commercialization project might take one year.

The administration is not obligated to award all available funds, according to the notice.

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