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Published: Wednesday, 5/4/2005

Fund plan imperils area link to NASA

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

SANDUSKY - Northwest Ohio's prime connection to NASA, the Plum Brook Station testing site in Erie County, is in danger of being shut down next year and its 95 engineers, technicians, and other workers scattered to the winds.

As part of the congressional budget proposal in February, the space agency's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, which oversees Plum Brook, is facing cuts of $120 million, including $10 million annually to keep Plum Brook operating.

Previously, the 6,400-acre Plum Brook site had been funded by the Glenn Research Center and from profits derived from testing at the Sandusky site. For example, ATK Space Systems in California, which is developing for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration a "solar sail" that one day might power spacecraft, is testing a prototype at Plum Brook.

But Richard Kunath, chief of the Sandusky management office, said the facility has no major test programs booked for next year and the Glenn center can't make up the $10 million shortfall or the $1 million that Plum Brook gets for operating expenses.

The Glenn Research Center, a group of 33 labs on 350 acres near Cleveland's Hopkins International Airport, may lose nearly 700 of its 3,300 employees over the next two years because of the budget cuts.

Plum Brook has about 75 engineers and technicians, 10 security personnel, and 10 federal officials. Built in the early 1970s to augment the Apollo space program, it was closed in the late 1970s but was reopened a few years later.

If Plum Brook were to close and NASA to decide to reopen it, finding and training new staff could take three years, Mr. Kunath said. "The irony is that originally Plum Brook was built as follow-on to Apollo missions and we were looking to go to Mars," he said. "Now, 40 years later, we're planning on going back to [Mars], but NASA's Explorations [office] hasn't determined what their needs will be yet."

Plum Brook officials have asked several NASA agencies for funds to keep the Sandusky site afloat through September, 2006, and Mr. Kunath said there has been positive interest from NASA's space operations and explorations offices. Also, a general NASA fund tied to all the space agency's offices could help alleviate Plum Brook's money woes.

Contact Jon Chavez at:

jchavez@theblade.com

or 419-724-6128.



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