HOUSTON — NASA’s Johnson Space Center has joined with the Houston Technology Center (HTC) under the terms of a Space Act Agreement signed Dec. 13 to leverage the talents of laid-off shuttle and Constellation program workers to establish new high-technology companies with the potential to create thousands of new jobs.

Estimates of the number of engineers, scientists and other technically skilled personnel in the Houston region who lost their jobs as the 30-year shuttle program came to an end in July range between 3,500 and 5,500. Plans for many of them to continue their careers with Constellation, the back-to-the-Moon program started by the George W. Bush administration, fell through when the initiative was canceled after anticipated budgets did not materialize and schedules slipped.

HTC believes its strategy of helping that workforce turn their intellectual capital into lucrative spin-offs and new companies will create 8,000-10,000 new jobs within a decade, says Walter Ulrich, president and CEO of the 12-year-old organization. HTC was named one of the nation’s top 10 technology accelerators last year by Forbes Magazine.

“There are amazing technical capabilities at the Johnson Space Center,” Ulrich says. “Many have not only worked with putting together the actual spacecraft but dealing with health care and life science matters, energy and energy conservation issues and advanced materials. They provide a resource, and we know how to help those people who have the knowledge and the desire to become entrepreneurs.”

The signing of the Space Act at the 50-year-old home to NASA’s Mission Control brought together Ulrich, Johnson Space Center Director Mike Coats, Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Jeff Moseley, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, which represents 36 smaller economic development groups. Johnson hosts the agency’s astronaut corps and has served as the design bureau for Apollo-era spacecraft, the shuttle and the International Space Station as well as the forthcoming Orion/Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

The Space Act alliance will permit HTC to establish an office next to Johnson’s Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office and use other NASA facilities to bring intellectual capital together with business strategists and potential investors.

Ulrich and Moseley believe the new alliance also will strengthen ties between space technology in Houston and the region’s other economic assets — the deep-rooted energy industry, the Texas Medical Center, a burgeoning information technology community and the nanotechnology field pioneered by Rice University.

“Essentially, the availability of the workforce at the Johnson Space Center — due to the conclusion of the shuttle program and the cutback of the Constellation program — produces one of the greatest resources for new business development this country has seen in many years,” Ulrich says. “There are great technical personnel, great program managers and great administrative support people. All those skills are needed to build high-tech businesses.”

Recent studies suggest Houston has already recovered the 121,000 jobs it lost in the recent recession. Once dominated by oil and gas, the greater Houston area of 6 million people has diversified its economic base over the last two decades. The region generates about $400 billion in economic activity annually, or about one-third of the total for the state of Texas.