BRIGHAM CITY — ATK Launch Systems has put its employees on alert, saying it plans to lay off 300 employees from the company's three Utah locations by the end of March.

The announcement particularly affects Box Elder County, where airbag maker Autoliv announced last week it is cutting 250 jobs from its payroll. The companies are the two largest employers in the county.

An Ogden company, Williams International, also laid off dozens of employees Thursday, according to KUTV. Williams International is a leader in gas-turbine engine building.

George Torres, vice president of communications for ATK Space Systems, said letters were sent to all ATK employees last week confirming rumors of impending layoffs.

"There is a lot of uncertainty and what we're doing is a workforce assessment to determine how those uncertainties are going to play out," Torres said.

There are several factors leading to the layoffs. Torres said one major factor is the pending completion of ATK's Minute Man III contract with the U.S. Air Force. ATK was contracted to build 600 missiles, and it is now working on the final 50 pieces. It is not clear what will happen upon completion, Torres said. The contract may end outright, or at best, production could slow from 12 per month to six to 12 per year, just for testing or replacement purposes.

The most uncertain factors affecting layoffs are pending funds — or the lack thereof — for the space shuttle program and its soon-to-be replacement, the Ares.

The space shuttle was scheduled to be retired in 2010, and ATK is right on track to make that happen, Torres said. However, due to budget cuts and other delays, Ares will not be ready to operate at that time.

If nothing happens, there will be a delay in the United States' ability to travel into space on its own power. Instead, American astronauts would have to rely upon Russia's space program to launch them into space.

Torres said, however, this is where the uncertainties come into play. NASA has received $400 billion specifically earmarked for the space shuttle replacement. But it is not clear yet if any of those funds will be available to ATK for its portion of Ares.

These funds come from the federal economic stimulus package, and NASA has 60 days to outline how it will use the funds.

Additionally, Torres said, NASA is in the process of preparing its annual budget. There has been some consideration given to funding an extension of the space shuttle, thus providing more time to get Ares on board and either reducing or eliminating the gap in space exploration and research.

Extra funds from either source could prolong some ATK jobs. In the meantime, Torres said employees will be moved into other positions as much as possible, and compensation will be made available to those who are laid off.

ATK is Box Elder County's largest employer with 4,000 employees in Promontory and 1,000 in Clearfield and Magna. Autoliv shares the county's No. 2 spot with the Box Elder School District and has operations in Promontory, Tremonton, Brigham City and two plants in Ogden.

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