Shuttle probe to look at firms
By Byron Acohido
Space shuttle managers Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. face intense scrutiny in coming weeks as investigators try to assess whether the aerospace giants played a part in the Columbia disaster.
The companies make up the United Space Alliance, a 7-year-old commercial partnership responsible for day-to-day maintenance and operation of the space shuttle program. NASA has paid the Houston-based alliance more than $7 billion to date.
"As government contracts go, they've had fairly good success," says Brian Chase of the National Space Society, a group that promotes space exploration. "They've been able to keep cost overruns down and yet be very safe and reliable."
The alliance began in 1996 as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration sought less costly ways to manage dozens of companies supplying equipment and services via separate contracts to the shuttle program. It turned the job over to a partnership formed by Rockwell, which built the orbiter, and Lockheed, which supplies the main fuel tank.
Boeing acquired Rockwell International in early 1997. Since then, Boeing and Lockheed have managed suppliers who handle everything from crew training to rocket boosters to cargo loading. NASA provides oversight at key stages.
However, NASA has come under criticism in the past few years for trying to do too much with too little money. A General Accounting Office report in 2001 found that NASA's work force "was stretched thin to the point where many areas critical to shuttle safety ... were not sufficiently staffed by qualified workers."
Last April, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, a NASA review group, echoed those concerns. Richard Blomberg, then chairman of the group, told Congress: "Repeated postponement of safety upgrades, the delay in restoring aging infrastructure, and the failure to look far enough ahead to anticipate and correct shortfalls ... will inevitably increase the risk of operating the space shuttle."
NASA's continuing budget crunch creates staff pressures that could compromise safety, says John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a watchdog group.
"Simply saying the shuttle is safe does not make it safe," he said.
Boeing spokesman Daniel Beck says it is premature to speculate on any ramifications of the shuttle disaster. "Our men and women are ready to help with whatever future direction the space program takes."
Whatever investigators find, NASA suppliers will probably gain business in the long run, industry experts say.
If the Columbia investigation leads to mandated safety improvements for the three remaining shuttles, contracts for that work could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. "This will accelerate investment in funding for shuttle upgrades," say space policy consultant Jim Muncy of PoliSpace.
What's more, a proposal to retire the shuttles and replace them with smaller "Orbital Space Planes," or OSPs, could be put on the fast track, says Harrison Schmitt, an Apollo 17 crew member who walked on the moon and a former U.S. senator from New Mexico.
Boeing, Lockheed and Northrup Grumman are working on competing designs for what could be a $10 billion development project.
"I believe they need to accelerate the availability of the space plane and just plan on having the shuttle stay in operations for an extended period of time," Schmitt says. "Both are critical to expanded, long run use of the space station."