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Shuttle Disaster

Contractors get a close look

The investigation is likely to examine whether privatization undermined NASA procedures and rules.

By CHUCK MURPHY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 5, 2003


HOUSTON -- The classic television images of Mission Control show row upon row of engineers and rocket scientists keeping close tabs on the orbiting space shuttle, ready to tackle any contingency and correct any flaw.

But in recent years, the security badges around the necks of most of the people in Mission Control have changed. They no longer work for NASA.

Instead, all but four of the people in Mission Control during recent shuttle flights were drawing their paychecks from a partnership between two of the world's biggest aerospace corporations.

The privatization of much of NASA's most visible work in 1996 drew little attention outside the insular world of aerospace management and engineering. But the United Space Alliance, a 50-50 partnership between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., is certain to come under increased scrutiny after the loss of Columbia while under the management of alliance employees Saturday morning.

"Most of the people I know at NASA have a feeling that contractors have gained too much influence there," said Robert Park, a University of Maryland physicist and space program expert. "The difference is, they (contractors) have to show a profit."

From the start, the contract generated controversy. Bryan O'Connor, then-director of the space shuttle program, resigned in what associates called a protest against the privatization plan. He later rejoined the agency as a safety administrator.

The move to assign some NASA work to the United Space Alliance came amid a major profit-driven consolidation of space and defense companies. During the past two decades, more than 70 private companies morphed into just five: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon and Northrup Grumman. The contract between NASA and the alliance was intended to save government money by reducing the number of separate contractor arrangements the space agency has to manage. Instead of working with more than 25 contractors, NASA could let the alliance handle it.

The initial deal was for $7-billion for six years. But incentives built into the contract brought its value to about $9-billion. Already, the contract has been extended for an additional two years for nearly $3-billion, and that number could grow.

Eighteen percent of the contract is contingent on meeting efficiency goals through cost-cutting. An additional 40 percent is an incentive "earned by safely achieving mission and schedule objectives, with positive financial incentives and penalties ascribed to each space shuttle mission."

"We don't make our money by saving money for NASA," United Space Alliance spokesman Mike Curie said. "We make money through safely operating the program."

Curie said the alliance's legal staff was researching the contract to determine what, if any, financial penalties it might face for the loss of Columbia and the death of its seven astronauts.

Although there are incentives in place for operating safely, the alliance -- and NASA's oversight of it -- has been criticized twice by the space agency's chief watchdog, the inspector general.

The first report, in March 2001, found that NASA staff at the Johnson Space Center in Houston had failed to monitor the work of alliance employees. As a result, United Space Alliance employees failed to make proper reports of unusual incidents during space shuttle planning and flights.

The second, in June, found that NASA employees at the Kennedy Space Center also were not keeping an eye on alliance employees. Instead of constantly monitoring the ground operations around the shuttles, NASA conducted audits and occasional surveillance to make sure alliance workers were doing their jobs right.

Additionally, the report said, United Space Alliance workers had used ground equipment without making sure it was safe, potentially damaging sensitive shuttle hardware.

All but four people directly managing or supporting a shuttle mission are typically employees of the alliance. The flight director, the flight surgeon, the public affairs officer and the person primarily responsible for talking to the crew are NASA employees. But thousands of others, from the people training the astronauts to those making the sensitive thermal tiles, are among the more than 9,200 employees of the alliance.

When news reports refer to "NASA engineers," the people they describe are frequently employees for United Space Alliance. NASA still has its own engineers, but alliance experts work side-by-side with them.

Curie said the mingling of government employees with corporate engineers should not be a concern for the public.

"Many (of the alliance employees) have been here since the shuttle program began, and they've worn a lot of different security badges during that time," Curie said. "But they consider themselves working for the shuttle program."

As the flight director and other NASA employees sought opinions on whether a piece of foam from the external fuel tank damaged Columbia during its launch Jan. 16, many people who advised them were working for the United Space Alliance, not NASA.

And now, as an independent panel and hundreds of others try to determine the cause of Columbia's disintegration, the NASA inspector general's office will review all the decisions made before and during the flight to see whether NASA rules were violated.

"We also plan to closely track the official agency investigation as it unfolds, to assure the administrator, the Congress and the taxpayers that all issues associated with the Columbia tragedy are satisfactorily dispositioned," the inspector general said.

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