Shuttle contractors under scrutiny


Matthew Fordahl
February 05, 2003

AS NASA investigates the Columbia space shuttle disaster, the spotlight once again is on the long list of private contractors who maintain the shuttle fleet in an era of tight budgets and industry consolidation.

Though it's too early to determine causes or point fingers, past disasters with both manned and unmanned spacecraft ultimately have been blamed on cost-cutting measures, lax oversight and miscommunication between the US's space agency and its dozens of contractors.

Nominal tyre pressure: 310psi

maximum: 340psi

minimum red-line: 275psi

Since the end of the Cold War, the closely tied defense and space industries have seen major consolidation as companies vie for fewer contracts and win the work by bidding low.

At the same time, NASA has increasingly relied on private contractors as it trimmed costs, shifting to private companies work previously handled by federal employees, including much of the shuttle and unmanned space programs.

"I don't think it's been a great improvement," said Robert Park, a University of Maryland expert on the space program.

In 1996, NASA handed over day-to-day operation of the shuttle fleet to United Space Alliance, which then consisted of Rockwell International and Lockheed Martin. Boeing took over Rockwell's role that year.

Currently, 90 per cent of the money the space agency spends goes to its contractors.

United Space Alliance's six-year contract, from 1996 to 2002, was valued at $US9 billion. Last year, it was extended for another two years for $US2.9 billion. The alliance was the space agency's largest contractor in 2001, with procurements totaling $US1.7 billion.

In the past, spacecraft problems have been largely blamed on underfunding, which ultimately trickles down from decisions made by the White House and Congress.

With tight budgets, agency and company managers have been reluctant to make costly decisions.

That was the case in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.

In that incident, Morton Thiokol workers warned NASA and their employer about the danger of launching the shuttle Challenger in cold weather. Brittle O-rings on one of the Thiokol-built boosters leaked hot gas, causing the explosion that killed all seven astronauts.

The disaster led to a redesign of the boosters, as well as countless safety reforms.

Early speculation on the cause of Saturday's Columbia accident, which also killed all seven aboard, is focusing on a piece of foam insulation that fell off the external fuel tank during launch, striking a section of the fragile thermal tiles on the orbiter's left wing.

The external fuel tank was built by Lockheed Martin at its Michoud Assembly Center in Louisiana. A Lockheed subsidiary also handled the design, installation and maintenance of the shuttle fleets' thermal tiles.

Lockheed earlier came under fire after NASA lost two unmanned Mars spacecraft in 1999.

First the $US125 million Mars Climate Orbiter burned up in the Martian atmosphere after Lockheed engineers failed to convert critical navigation data into metric numbers.

Two months later, a software glitch that was not caught by NASA or Lockheed caused the $US165 million Mars Polar Lander to shut off its engines prematurely during landing. The spacecraft is believed to have crashed into the Red Planet.

In both cases, review boards found oversight and funding to be lacking.

In 2001, a NASA audit criticized the space agency's oversight of the United Space Alliance's shuttle safety

 operations. An alliance spokesman did not immediately return calls seeking comment on the audit and whether any changes were made as a result.

Megan Mariman, a Lockheed spokeswoman, said the company was cooperating with NASA in the investigation but referred specific questions to the alliance. Boeing spokesman Dan Beck said it was premature to be talking about the future of United Space Alliance.

Space shuttles have flown dozens of missions safely and successfully since the alliance became the prime contractor. In 2001, an alliance employee was cited for averting a disaster when he spotted hairline cracks in the fuel lines of the shuttle Atlantis.

Still, major shuttle contractors aren't expected to take a major financial hit as a result of the Columbia disaster, said Robert Friedman, senior aerospace defense analyst for Standard & Poor's Equity Group.

NASA-related sales account only for 4 per cent and 3 per cent of total sales for Boeing and Lockheed Martin, respectively.

But smaller subcontractors, such as Alliant Techsystems, which now owns Thiokol, will likely see fallout in both revenues and from investors, he said.

"I wouldn't base my long-term growth prospects on NASA business, that's for sure," Mr Friedman said.

The Associated Press
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