The space shuttle, the iconic orbiter that has been at the core of NASA's manned spaceflight program for decades, is headed into retirement next year, a shutdown process that will likely mean thousands of job losses. The formal phaseout process resumed today after a temporary hold initiated last year to give the incoming president time to reconsider the shuttle's fate. But the Obama administration has not intervened, and NASA announced that about 160 pink slips will be handed out today with many more to come over the next few months.

"Between [Friday] and the end of September, we will reduce the program by about 900 people," program manager John Shannon said at a news conference yesterday, as reported by the Orlando Sentinel. "They are primarily manufacturing-team members. We have delivered the last pieces of hardware that those team members produce, and we don't keep them on the rolls." According to the Sentinel, the initial layoffs will come mostly from the ranks of contractors who build the shuttle's fuel tanks and rocket boosters; those projects are headed by Lockheed Martin and ATK.

While manufacturing jobs taper off, those working in shuttle operations at Kennedy Space Center will mostly be spared as launches continue through mid-2010, according to Florida Today, "but the center faces the loss of an estimated 3,500 jobs once shuttle stop flying." The shuttle program has eight remaining flights, including the scheduled launch May 11 of a servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Photo of space shuttle Atlantis on the launch pad at Kennedy: NASA/Kim Shiflett