An Air Force study concluded last October that the space agency's ground-support operations for the shuttle were hobbled by confused record-keeping, disorganized equipment maintenance and other shortcomings.
The internal study said these problems would increasingly hinder the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's ability to prepare the shuttle for launch.
It said data systems developed by NASA and its contractors at Kennedy Space Center were "so ineffective and inconsistent" that their use for long-range planning for "equipment update, manpower, spares and funding is not possible." The systems are for monitoring maintenance and repairs on ground equipment that moves, loads, fuels and services the shuttle.
The report also said workers were taking more time to fix certain problems compared with the previous year, and that an apparent shortage of engineers and technicians resulted in hundreds of maintenance requirements not being filled or scheduled.
"The lack of a maintenance program . . . has caused two instances of STS [shuttle] launch slippage and numerous schedule changes and work-arounds to prevent other launch slips," the report said.
The "two instances" were a four-week delay in the second shuttle launch, caused when fuel spilled onto the orbiter and loosened hundreds of heat-shield tiles, and a four-week delay of the 23rd flight when a heavy bucket fell and damaged the payload bay door. Both accidents were caused by faulty ground hardware.
The study, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, was prepared by an Air Force team at Kennedy Space Center and circulated primarily to Air Force officials preparing to launch shuttles, most with military cargoes, for the first time from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The same shuttle-processing team is to work at both sites.
Most U.S. rocket launches have been halted indefinitely after an unprecedented series of disasters, including the explosion of the shuttle Challenger and death of its seven-member crew Jan. 28, and the failure of three unmanned rockets since August -- two Air Force Titans at Vandenberg and, last Saturday, a Delta at Cape Canaveral.
The failures have spawned an ever-widening reexamination of the space program. Much of the attention has focused on strains felt in Kennedy Space Center operations as the agency attempted to dramatically increase the shuttle flight schedule.
The 11-page Air Force study is one of several efforts in the last three years to evaluate the ground-support equipment operations at Kennedy and "to see how we can make [the process] better," according to an Air Force source who asked not to be identified.
Lt. Col. Thomas J. Meeks, director of the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation team, who signed the report, declined to discuss it, saying, "It speaks for itself."
The report in part parallels general concerns about the accelerated schedule that were expressed in annual reports by the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, NASA's committee of outside experts.
The Air Force team found that troubled ground-support operations functioned as well as they had only because no more than one or two shuttles were normally serviced at one time and because flights were at least 50 days apart.
"This scenario has started changing and will change even more in the [fiscal year] 86-89 time frame" as a result of increased launch rates and aging equipment, the study said.
"Without a viable" ground-support equipment maintenance program "and dedicated engineering staff, [the operation] will have an adverse impact on shuttle processing capabilities," the report said.
Of more than 600 categories of ground equipment, the study focused on the "top 10 problem" categories, or equipment models, from January 1983 to last June.
The average time to resolve 1,516 reported problems was 53.9 days, little difference from the 53.4-day average to resolve 1,222 reported problems from January 1982 to December 1983.
On eight problems that were "repeaters," the report said, the average elapsed time had increased from 39.2 days to 47.1 days, "indicating a worsening trend."
In checking assorted maintenance instructions, problem reports, work authorizations and other records for July 1 to Oct. 30 last year, the study found "an average of 2,200" work requirements not dealt with and "only 26 percent (572) scheduled for work."
Of 1,185 such requirements not dealt with and not scheduled for work, about 52 percent were identified as awaiting engineering action, about 14 percent as awaiting supplies and the rest as delayed on other grounds.
"The above scheduling data points to several areas that appear to need close attention by NASA" and Lockheed Space Operations Co., the shuttle-processing contractor, the report said. These included lack of engineers and technicians, lack of standardized repair data and "an inadequate" maintenance program.
The report also criticized the spare-parts system as "very inadequate" and said evidence indicated that "it could be only the tip of a huge iceberg."
NASA and Lockheed officials declined comment. The Air Force report and members of NASA's outside safety panel indicated that the shuttle-processing team had been working on the problems.
"Not that the operation was orderly, but it was more orderly than the year before," John Stewart, a Tennessee Valley Authority official and safety panel member, said yesterday. "The trend line was in the right direction."