Safety an Issue Since '90s

R. Jeffrey Smith and Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 3, 2003

The space shuttle program, buffeted by cost overruns and dwindling support for its budget, faced a turning point in the early 1990s. It could try to find a new public constituency for higher spending or aggressively shrink its expenses through different management and less frequent launches.

Over the objections of many safety experts, it chose the latter course. The shuttle program was transformed from a largely government-run effort to one in which private contractors received more than 90 percent of its funds and operated under the supervision of only a few hundred full-time government employees.

The agency's decision to make do with less instead of demanding more is coming under fresh scrutiny in the wake of Saturday's loss of one of the four shuttle vehicles. Although no one knows what caused the disaster, many aerospace experts and some program managers say the shuttle was fiscally and technically imperiled long before the calamity.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration director Sean O'Keefe yesterday expressed a commitment to "find out what the evidence leads us to," but he defended the program and said its resources were always adequate to ensure that safety remained the top priority. He said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the condition of the shuttle vehicles "is as good as we can make it, and better in that respect."

But Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) said yesterday that the program's plight would be the subject of congressional hearings soon. "I also think we need to absolutely renew our commitment to NASA. This is the time to say we are not going to continue cutting this budget," she said on "Fox News Sunday."

Even the director of the private consortium that presently manages half of the space shuttle budget had predicted before the accident that the program was headed for serious trouble. "I am more pessimistic today than I have been in the 17 years I have been doing this," Michael J. McCulley, director of United Space Alliance, said at a Senate hearing on Sept. 6, 2001.

Referring to the looming challenges of replacing a wide range of aging shuttle components and support equipment, McCulley said, "The ice is getting thinner under our feet as we move towards the middle of this lake."

Since he spoke, NASA's space shuttle budget has increased by more than $ 100 million, and several hundred additional workers have been hired. But at the same time, several repairs deemed critical to improving crew safety -- such as a redesign of the shuttle's internal warning sensors and the replacement of a hazardous internal power unit -- were deferred by the Bush administration because they cost too much.

It was not the first time that flight safety improvements have competed against demands for cost-cutting and lost. The program's history is replete with examples of this tension, stemming in part from the shuttle's failure to meet virtually any of the expectations of even its most enthusiastic backers.

At the heart of the shuttle concept was the idea that it would eventually cost less than all other means of reaching space. Unlike wasteful rockets, each spent during launch, the shuttle system, designed around a space vehicle that would be reused, was conceived as a brilliant, economizing innovation.

The shuttle was designed to loft satellites cheaply, to ferry astronauts routinely to a space station and to provide a platform for cutting-edge science. But it has never accomplished any of these tasks.

Many satellite designers deemed its payload bay too confining; a larger bay was never built because it would have cost too much. Both commercial enterprises and military officers determined that expendable rockets were many times more reliable at a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to finance each shuttle launch.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2003 The Washington Post Company