Safety an Issue Since '90s
Experts Critical of Shuttle Program's Budget Cuts

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.

The program proved far more complex and much less useful than anticipated. As NASA's largest single program, it is sustained by more than 200 contractors, 20,000 workers and an annual budget of more than $ 3.2 billion. Its ground assets -- ranging from special rail cars and barges to propellant fuel plants -- cost more than $ 4 billion.

At the same time, the shuttle has never come close to achieving an expected cost-efficient, annual rate of 20 to 50 launches a year. The most it achieved was nine launches in 1985, one year before the 1986 destruction of one of its vehicles and a three-year launch hiatus for subsequent safety reviews and repairs.

Before the shuttle Columbia disintegrated on Saturday, NASA was struggling to maintain just four launches a year; now even that rate will almost certainly be impossible. So today's system is both far less capable and far less economic than expected. NASA itself is now the shuttle's dominant and most enthusiastic customer.

This problem is well-understood in Washington. The signs of the program's troubles were all evident in the 1980s, when the military cited the launch hiatus as an excuse to withdraw its satellites and much of its financial support from the program. By the early 1990s, when public and congressional interest in the program had faded and the cost of shuttle operations had grown to more than $ 4 billion a year, the pressures to trim its budget -- in effect, to bring down its single-launch cost -- had become huge.

One reason was the 1993 startup of construction of the space station, a $ 26.1 billion program that depends on the shuttle for parts and resupply but competes for funds within NASA's largely stable overall budget, which now totals about $ 15 billion. But the larger problem, outside analysts said, was that the shuttle was chasing the immensely difficult goal of competitively low costs.

So the Clinton administration chose to try to save funds by privatizing much of the program in 1996, a decision that it boasted had helped achieve a one-quarter reduction in its contractor and government workforce and a one-third reduction in the average cost per flight -- from $ 600 million to $ 400 million.

Many of these savings, agency officials have said, came from handing over responsibility for day-to-day management of shuttle mission planning, training and operations to a Lockheed Martin-Boeing consortium known as United Space Alliance. The Houston-based company today equips the shuttle crews with everything from spacesuits and clothing to the meals they eat in space and the toothbrushes they use to clean their teeth.

The decision means that NASA has more work controlled by contractors than any other federal agency, according to Mark Roth, general counsel of the American Federation of Government Employees. "We kind of joke that it is a contractor agency at this point," he said.

Safety alarms were sounded from the outset about this decision, partly due to concerns that NASA was not adequately monitoring the contracts.

Seymour C. Himmel, then a panel member, said in an interview that "the thing that bothered us most was NASA's failure to fund upgrades that we felt were necessary. . . . They made these decisions for the budget's sake."

Safety concerns were expressed in 1999 by a panel composed of the government's top aerospace experts, which found dozens of safety problems that had not been addressed by NASA or United Space Alliance. NASA promised to make changes, but experts on another panel in 2002 -- convened by Rand Corp. -- cited internal estimates of a $ 420 million backlog in needed expenditures for maintenance and repair of ground systems.

Even McCulley, at United Space Alliance, was eventually concerned that costs had been cut too far. "In my opinion, our drive toward efficiency has moved us below sufficient funding for the many years of shuttle operation ahead," he said in 2001.

NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel concluded shortly after the contract was awarded that "while safety is a popular byword in the space shuttle program, dollar constraints may limit the capability to perform the tasks necessary to minimize the risk."

Contributing to this report were staff writers Mary Pat Flaherty, Greg Schneider and Joby Warrick; staff writer Mark Stencel; and staff researchers Donald Pohlman and Julie Tate.

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