As the countdown toward a launch of Atlantis on the first space shuttle flight of the year was set to begin, another clock ticked away toward a possible strike by several hundred workers at Kennedy Space Center.
The 569 space workers who last weekend rejected a contract offer from United Space Alliance could go on strike as early as Saturday, just a day after the first attempt to launch Atlantis, officials said. The company is the space agency's primary contractor for preparing space shuttles for launch.
NASA officials said Monday that a strike would not affect the launch. No decision has been made on when workers would strike.
"Unless they decide to come to their senses a little bit, I'm sure that it's likely," said Johnny Walker, directing business representative for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District Lodge 166. "I would urge NASA to not let the company put them in a bad situation."
The workers represent only a drop in the bucket of Kennedy Space Center's 17,000-person work force. Most of them labor in support areas, and few have any direct role in the final preparations for space shuttle launches, said Tracy Yates, a company spokeswoman.
Many of the workers work in logistics, warehousing, shipping and receiving, ground systems equipment and facilities maintenance. Others operate cranes and maintain the crawler-transporter used to deliver space shuttles to launch pads.
Most of the work for Friday's launch already has been completed by the employees who may strike. If there were a strike, managers and nonunion workers who have experience or certification in those jobs would be pressed into service, Yates said.
But Walker said those people would not be up to the jobs.
"The guys that operate the crawlers and do the crane work, it takes our guys years to do the certification," Walker said. "It's not something that they teach somebody for three weeks or a couple of days, and then they walk in and do. That's dangerous business."
United Space Alliance was formed more than a decade ago and is owned equally by The Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. Yates said the company was open to further talks, but as of Monday none were occurring.
NASA spokesman Bill Johnson said the space agency didn't expect any disruption in services provided by the company.
Atlantis and its seven astronauts are scheduled to blast off at 7:38 p.m. EDT (2338 GMT) Friday on a mission to deliver a third pair of solar arrays and continue construction on the international space station.
The astronauts were set to fly to Florida from Houston later Monday, and the countdown clock was set to start Tuesday night.
The launch originally was set for mid-March but was postponed after a hailstorm damaged insulating foam on the external fuel tank. Technicians worked more than two months repairing thousands of dings in the foam.
The astronauts flew to Florida from Houston in training jets Monday evening, and the countdown clock was set to start Tuesday night.
"As you know, we had a little bit of a setback when we were supposed to go in March," said Atlantis commander Rick Sturckow after landing in Florida. "We appreciate all the great work ... that was done on our external tank."