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Columbia

NASA feels pinch of the bottom line

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2003


NASA has long symbolized our romantic affair with space, the final frontier.

But somewhere along the way, NASA lost some of its allure. Federal watchdogs often treat it as just another bloated, big-spending bureaucracy. A space agency in belated need of a tighter-fisted budget, smarter managers and more output from fewer workers.

Sound familiar? Getting more out of less. It's all the rage.

We do it at home, squeezing too many commitments into too little time. And we do it more than ever in the workplace, where rising productivity of U.S. workers delights our economic leaders even if it demoralizes the rank and file.

Hey, it's a competitive world. Everybody's living just a little closer to the edge. Accepting a little more risk.

NASA learned this the hard way Saturday morning, when the returning Columbia space shuttle exploded over Texas. The tragedy does not mean NASA did something wrong, or that the shuttle's seven astronauts who died were put unnecessarily in harm's way.

But it does remind us how NASA is under enormous financial and political pressure to prove it can deliver increasingly efficient flights into space. Just like a business.

It means NASA has cut costs, but also given up some control, by outsourcing its space shuttle flight operations to the United Space Alliance, a private firm owned by Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. Just like a business.

It means NASA has trimmed one-quarter of its work force, to 18,500 from 25,000, in the past seven years. Why? Because the space program's budget shrank 40 percent over the past decade. Just like a business.

Former NASA chief Dan Goldin had his own slogan for future agency projects: faster, better, cheaper. Snappy. But it wasn't enough.

Fourteen months ago, the White House chose Sean O'Keefe from the Office of Management and Budget to become NASA's chief and make the space program more accountable.

Ten months ago, Richard Blomberg, then chairman of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, warned Congress in a safety report of NASA's excessive cost-cutting: "I have never been as worried for space shuttle safety as I am right now," he said.

The General Accounting Office, the financial watchdog arm of Congress, issued several reports in recent years critical of NASA's inefficiencies. The most recent GAO report, made public just days before the Columbia crash, concludes that NASA faces challenges threatening its ability "to effectively run its largest programs."

The report chastises a NASA culture in need of "a major transformation."

The 22-year-old Columbia was, and NASA's three remaining space shuttles will continue to be, a prime target of federal bean counters who view the fleet as expensive to operate and maintain. NASA does not dispute this.

But NASA seems eager to prove it can run the space shuttles -- as feeder ships to supply the international space station, and as reliable vehicles for commercial enterprises in space -- with the same corporate cost-consciousness as an airline might operate a shuttle service between Washington and New York.

NASA insists safety is a priority even as it sets some rather aggressive expense goals. On the space shuttles, the cost of a launch approaches $10,000 per pound of payload and people. The agency wants to reduce that expense to just $1,000 per pound with next-generation launch vehicles. NASA already plans to build the first "orbital space plane" by 2010.

I guess it was inevitable that NASA's aura would someday be replaced with an MBA spreadsheet and risk-benefit analysis.

Space is, after all, quickly becoming as much a corporate opportunity as a scientific endeavor. It's a big-buck venture that increasingly will be financed by Wall Street and companies in search of new products, new markets and profits.

What's next? NASA Corp. trading on Nasdaq?

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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