ROBERT SIEGEL, host: When the shuttle Atlantis makes its final orbits of the Earth tonight, it's carrying four astronauts, some trash from the space station, and a load of congressional politics.
As NPR's Peter Overby reports, Capitol Hill has always been deeply involved in NASA's activities, and sometimes seem to regard NASA as a jobs program, as well as a space program.
PETER OVERBY: Before Atlantis went up on this final flight, the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on the future of NASA. Among the witnesses...
Mr. FRANK SLAZER (Vice President, Aerospace Industries Association): I'm here on behalf of the Aerospace Industries Association, an association of over 300 aerospace companies, representing over 90 percent of the U.S. industry.
OVERBY: That's Frank Slazer, a vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association. 300 companies and, he noted, nearly 11 million jobs. Slazer got right to the point, the industry is suffering.
Mr. SLAZER: The on again/off again plans for shuttles' replacements over the past decade have led to considerable workforce uncertainty across the entire industrial base, where firms are faced with wrenching decisions to let highly skilled personnel go due to the lack of funding and/or clear direction.
OVERBY: The uncertainty doesn't just affect the Space Coast of Florida, or Houston, home of the Johnson Space Flight Center. It's nationwide. This year, according to federal contract data, NASA will buy goods and services in 396 of the 435 congressional districts.
Dr. SCOTT PACE (Space Policy Institute, George Washington University): Technical talent is spread across the country and we're in a democracy where people want to see contracts spread across the country.
OVERBY: This is Scott Pace, a former NASA official, now director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
Dr. PACE: It's sometimes been said that the, you know, the most efficient approach would be to have all, you know, 18,000 or so NASA employees behind a fence in Florida, and feed aluminum in one end and have rockets come out the other. But we don't do that.
OVERBY: And there can be pragmatic reasons for this. Howard McCurdy is a public administration professor at American University.
Professor HOWARD MCCURDY (Public Administration, American University): A lot of political force behind congressional support for the space program derives from the employment opportunities that it provides.
OVERBY: The Pentagon does business this way, locking in congressional support by spreading contracts around the country. NASA declined an interview request. But McCurdy says this...
Prof. MCCURDY: Webb especially, Jim Webb, the second NASA administrator said: Look, if you're going to have political support for this program, you're going to have to contract out.
OVERBY: But now, as the shuttle is about to swing in for its final touchdown, lawmakers argue over what NASA should do next.
Going back to that hearing on NASA's future, Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas was worried about her constituents and others who've worked on the shuttle program.
Senator KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (Republican, Texas): From 14,000 contractors and civil servants that have been in the space shuttle workforce, we are now down to about 7,000.
OVERBY: The debate now is over a back to the Moon program, proposed by President George W. Bush. President Obama wants to cut it. Some lawmakers are fighting to keep funding it, and they argue partly about jobs.
This spring, Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski questioned NASA administrator Charles Bolden.
Senator BARBARA MIKULSKI (Democrat, Maryland): We're all obsessed with jobs, Mr. Administrator.
OVERBY: Mikulski is from Maryland, home of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
Sen. MIKULSKI: And I think what we're looking at is how do we continue innovation, jobs of the future. But I think every member here is concerned about jobs today. So we need to talk about that.
OVERBY: And as they talk in Washington, those shuttle jobs continue to wind down.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.