HOUSTON — The 11,000-member contractor workforce at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, which supports operations aboard the six-person International Space Station as well as development of the Orion/Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, is facing an accelerating drop-off through furloughs if the U.S. government shutdown continues, a regional economic development official warns.

Twenty percent of Johnson’s contractor workforce had been furloughed as the second week of the shutdown began, but the numbers are expected to reach 60% by the end of October and 90% by mid-November if the shutdown continues, said Robert Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership (Bahep), following an Oct. 8 meeting with representatives from nearly half of the 53 aerospace companies in the area.

In addition to concerns about the welfare of aerospace workers and their families, the industry is concerned that many furloughed professionals will choose to pursue new careers in the energy, health care, chemical or maritime sectors of the regional economy, which are expanding. The loss of skilled workers could hinder efforts to train astronauts and prepare supplies for the ISS, and slow efforts to re-establish a U.S. capability to launch astronauts that was lost with the space shuttle’s 2011 retirement and to develop new exploration technologies, Mitchell said.

“People don’t understand the impact this is having. They don’t understand the impact this is having on the contractor community — the big guys and the little guys,” he said. “They don’t understand the contractor community is different than federal civil servants.”

NASA ranked at the top of federal agencies forced to furlough civil servants — all but 3% of the 18,250 total spread across 10 agency offices and installations. Johnson was permitted to exempt 193 of its 3,200 full- and part-time civil servants, largely to ensure support for the ISS, which currently houses two NASA astronauts, three Russian cosmonauts and one European astronaut.

Like all federal civil servants, those of NASA have been assured back pay by Congress and the White House once the shutdown ends.

The government demarcation between NASA civil servant and contractor has led to confusion in the region over how the shutdown is impacting not only the economy but NASA’s future, Mitchell charged.

The Johnson Space Center payroll for all of its civil servants and contractor personnel is estimated at $1.5 billion annually.

NASA’s smallest contractors have neither the assets nor the ability to borrow funds to sustain their businesses and employees through a lengthy furlough, according to the Bahep president.

While the White House and Congress are largely to blame, NASA’s administration could have done more to include its contractor ranks among those deemed essential during the shutdown, especially those personnel involved in training future flight crews and preparing supply missions for the orbiting science lab, Mitchell said.

“My approach now is to wake up our congressional delegation as to how this is affecting not only this region but the entire space program,” Mitchell says. “What I’m looking for is a common-sense response as to why NASA made these draconian determinations of which contracts are essential and which are not.”