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After curtain falls on shuttle program, space companies seek new direction

HARTFORD, Connecticut -- Less than a year after NASA ended its shuttle program, players in America's space business are casting around for new direction.

United Technologies Corp. is the most recent company to announce it will sharply scale back its role in space exploration. It's selling Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, a manufacturer of rocket engines and liquid-propulsion systems that it's owned for seven years. The sale of Rocketdyne and other businesses are intended to raise US$3 billion to finance United Technologies' purchase of aerospace parts maker Goodrich Corp.

Greg Hayes, chief financial officer at United Technologies, rapped U.S. space policy when he announced the decision in mid-March to sell Rocketdyne.

“Growth will be limited at Rocketdyne,” Hayes told investor analysts. “It's still a very good business. It's a national asset ... but unfortunately, without a national space policy, growth will be limited for some time.”

Rocketdyne dates to early rocketry, working with pioneers such as Wernher von Braun and contributing to propulsion on Apollo spacecraft in the 1960s and '70s that brought astronauts to the moon.

The company has a future with NASA even if the space agency's path is unclear, said Rocketdyne President Jim Maser. Three of four companies vying to take crew to the space station would use Rocketdyne propulsion, he said. Still, he said, NASA's path is unclear.

“There is an official space policy and I can't cite it, to be honest,” Maser said.

NASA's 30-year shuttle program ended last July with the voyage of Atlantis. The space shuttles Discovery and Enterprise have become museum pieces, turned over by NASA in April to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the USS Intrepid floating air-and-space museum in New York, respectively.

Other companies have shifted some business from space exploration. Lockheed Martin Corp. closed its shuttle tank production line in New Orleans in 2010, ending the jobs of about 1,400 workers. A year later, NASA chose that site in New Orleans to build components of its new heavy-lift rocket, but only if Congress funds the project.

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This photo provided by NASA shows space shuttle Enterprise, mounted atop a NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), flying near the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York, Friday, April 27. Enterprise was the first shuttle orbiter built for NASA performing test flights in the atmosphere and was incapable of spaceflight. (AFP)

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