With Reagan Order, The Crunch Began

By Kathy Sawyer
Sunday, May 25, 1986

A veteran technician who helps prepare U.S. space shuttles for launch sat in a cafeteria at the Kennedy Space Center and spoke wistfully of the late 1960s and the Apollo era -- the "fat" days. "You had a lot of people on the job then," he recalled. "When you got tired . . . somebody would come along and take over.

"With the shuttle, you don't ever get relieved. You just stay on the job until it's done," said the technician, a photographer who documents shuttle preparation and launch activities.

"One day I think I worked 17 hours," he said of the period just before the Jan. 28 launch of the shuttle Challenger, which exploded and killed its crew of seven.

"That's not normal, but it's not unusual to work 10- and 12-hour days . . . It was common talk in the hangars that they were expecting and asking too much of us."

Here at the nation's spaceport, policies formulated in Washington, and pressures generated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's culture, meet reality.

The moment of truth for the agency arrived when President Reagan announced in 1982 that the test phase of the shuttle was over. The program's first priority, he said, "is to make the system fully operational and cost-effective in providing routine access to space." With that directive came an ambitious, accelerated launch schedule -- and the crunch began.

The effect of the policy, as portrayed in dozens of interviews, studies by outside experts and other documents and reports, was to overtax and confuse a complex system that, according to current and former top NASA officials, was already operating on the margins of tolerances.

In their effort to make the shuttle "operational," NASA and contractor officials reorganized shuttle work to make it more like an industrial assembly line, with safety, reliability and cost "coequal concerns," even though the exotic vehicles were still experimental and the problems varied, sometimes dramatically, from one flight to the next.

The shuttle processing operation was "struggling to handle the burden of work associated with each mission" mandated under the new policy, NASA's outside panel of safety experts wrote in their annual report of January 1985.

The system began to "rattle," as one former NASA employe put it, in the following ways:

*Long hours, for key workers, came with the territory. A former top shuttle official here said that middle- and high-management personnel routinely put in 80- and 90-hour weeks, sometimes for three or four weeks running.

*In the name of operational efficiency, the number of independent inspections on the work and the hardware was dramatically reduced by NASA and the shuttle processing contractor, Lockheed.

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© 1986 The Washington Post Company