As funding fell, safety concerns rose
© St. Petersburg Times
WASHINGTON -- Two years ago, an independent commission that reviews NASA programs concluded that after a decade of shuttle budget cuts, "safety concerns have never been greater."
The report's authors fretted about NASA having to defer a range of safety upgrades, from incorporating potentially life-saving new technologies to updating the shuttle's engineering drawings.
NASA administrators "were doing all they could. It really wasn't a problem with NASA," said aerospace consultant Norman R. Parmet, a former chairman of the Aerospace Advisory Safety Panel who left the group in 2001 after 19 years. "The problem was politicians."
No specific budget cut can be tied directly to the space shuttle Columbia's disintegration over Texas on Saturday. But shuttle funding has fallen steeply in recent years, even as NASA was saying it hoped to extend the life of the current shuttles from 2012 to as late as 2020.
"With any aging vehicle like this, you're always developing improvements," Parmet said. "It could be in the instrumentation or the hydraulic power system, and NASA had a whole list of these and prioritized them so the most important came first. "The problem was they were constrained by funds so they couldn't do as much as they wanted. You can't get to higher levels of safety unless you spend the money."
During the 1990s, the overall NASA budget was relatively flat. But the Clinton administration chopped the shuttle program's budget by 40 percent, taking inflation into account.
The shuttle program's 2002 budget is $3.2-billion this year, and President Bush has proposed an increase to $3.97 billion for 2004. Overall, the administration has proposed $15.5-billion for NASA in 2004, a 3 percent increase from this year.
Although Congress usually has met or slightly exceeded administration requests for shuttle funding, other needs sometimes prompted NASA to ask lawmakers' permission to divert money from the shuttle program.
In fiscal year 1998, NASA siphoned off $50-million from the $2.98-billion shuttle budget to shore up the troubled international space station.
In 2001, NASA took $30-million from shuttle reserves for Mars exploration.
And then, as Bush took office in 2001, NASA announced that cost overruns in the space station program had saddled the agency with a $5-billion deficit, an eye-popping figure for an agency whose overall budget at the time was $14-billion.
The announcement bolstered then-Rep. Tim Roemer's yearslong quest to eliminate funding for the space station.
"I would be the first one out there as a proponent for a space station if it was going to perform the great tasks that we envisioned," the Indiana Democrat said during House debate in 2001.
But with NASA and its aerospace contractors providing thousands of jobs in Florida, California, Texas and Alabama, Roemer's amendments to kill the space station never succeeded.
With NASA's spending an issue, Bush chose former Office of Management and Budget deputy director Sean O'Keefe to head the space agency in 2001.
O'Keefe billed himself as a "budgeteer, not a rocketeer." He still is struggling to rein in NASA spending even as critics more aggressively attack the agency's cost-cutting after the Columbia tragedy.
And so, in real terms of hardware and software, what has all this budget tightening meant for the shuttle's future?
It has meant the deferment or cancellation of specific upgrades. They include:
The electric auxiliary power unit: Development of this battery-powered motor to run the shuttle's hydraulic pumps was halted in 2001 for financial and technical reasons.
According to the safety panel's report, "Of all the proposed orbiter safety improvements, the (power unit) was expected to provide the greatest reduction in risk."
The motor would have replaced the combustible and corrosive hydrazine fuel that powers the hydraulic pumps, which give the pilot control over the shuttle during takeoff and landing.
"If you take the hydrazine out and replace it with a battery-driven motor, you improve safety," Parmet said.
Checkout and launch control system: NASA canceled this upgrade of computers in launch control at Kennedy Space Center in September after the project busted its original $206-million budget.
When it killed the upgrade, NASA already had spent $272-million on the effort to wean launch control computers from their 1970s-era technology. The agency needed an additional $127-million to complete the upgrade.
Cockpit avionics upgrade, phase II: The first phase of this effort to improve cockpit technical instruments continues, but NASA has deferred the second phase pending future funding.
By improving the crew's ability to monitor shuttle operations and automating some complex procedures, the upgrade is supposed to help reduce human error during flight.
The budget cuts of the 1990s also left NASA lacking clerical staff to update engineering drawings in the computer.
In February 2000, Kennedy Space Center found that it was using 1,500 orbiter drawings with at least 10 changes stapled to them. NASA eventually managed to update about 50 drawings, the safety panel reported.
NASA's priorities in this area proved correct: The updated drawings featured thermal protection tiles, the focus of NASA's investigation into why Columbia broke into fiery pieces when it re-entered the earth's atmosphere.
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