Criticism About Aging Spacecraft & Safety Gains New Attention

WASHINGTON 02/03/03 In fending off concerns about its aging space shuttles, NASA always had history on its side: not one accident in 87 missions since the agency's post-Challenger safety reforms.

Now, although the cause of Columbia's crash isn't clear, the years of warnings about using 30-year-old technology to blast people into orbit are getting a fresh look.

For the past decade, increasingly vocal critics inside and outside of NASA argued that the agency's four-shuttle fleet, built on designs developed in the 1970s, was getting too old to be reliable.

And they warned that NASA, in trying to stick to budgets that did not keep pace with inflation, was trimming maintenance and inspections to the bare minimum.

NASA always faced a tough job in responding to such criticisms. On one hand, agency officials said they needed more money; on the other, they always insisted that shuttle safety was not being compromised under their existing budgets. Still, even some of the program's strongest advocates had begun to express fears of disaster.

Last March, NASA's own safety advisory panel reported that "budget projections for the space shuttle are insufficient to accommodate significant safety upgrades ... and maintenance of critical workforce skills."

Appropriations for NASA have been flat or declining for a decade, and the shuttle program has been hit especially hard. In a letter to colleagues after the safety panel's report last spring, NASA-friendly senators said funding for shuttle maintenance and operations had fallen 40% in the previous 10 years.

To try to ensure safety, NASA has sent each shuttle to an Air Force plant in Palmdale, Calif., for inspections and major modifications every three years or eight flights, whichever came first. Beyond that, the flight preparations for each shuttle involve thousands of people executing roughly 1.2 million separate procedures.

As a result, NASA officials say, there were no fears about Columbia, the oldest shuttle in the fleet, as it set out on its 28th mission.

"The vehicles are kept in just pristine shape," Ron Dittemore, NASA's shuttle program manager, said Saturday. He said NASA's job is to " manage ... corrosion and manage ... wear so that we continue to fly these vehicles safely."

Indeed, the shuttles were meant to withstand up to 100 flights. But many safety experts have worried that it's not the miles, but the years: The shuttles initially were designed to fly for only a decade.

Report after report has suggested that the fleet was showing its age. Inspectors have found cracked wiring, heat-insulating surface panels breaking loose and broken coolant systems. Analysts have expressed fear that such a problem eventually would escape notice.

Budget limits led NASA to cut its shuttle workforce from about 3,000 full-time positions at the start of 1995 to roughly 1,800 at the end of 1999. NASA said safety was not compromised. Much of the downsizing was done by consolidating shuttle maintenance and launch-preparation duties under a single private contractor. Added efficiency, coupled with improved technology that helped with certain tasks, allowed NASA to run the program effectively with fewer people, some officials said.

Not everyone agreed.

In January 2001, the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, warned that the shuttle workforce had declined "to the point of reducing NASA's ability to safely support the shuttle program." NASA halted its cutbacks, began adding about 200 full-time jobs and developed strategies for retaining skilled workers. But a GAO audit issued last week found that the shuttle programs workforce is still inadequate.

NASA's strongest supporters in Congress have campaigned for increases to its budget. Congress responded by increasing NASA funds by about $600 million in each of the past two budget years.

The White House is asking for nearly $15.5 billion for the agency's budget in 2004, a rise of about $469 million over the current year. But most of the increase is aimed at new technology and robotics for unmanned space exploration, not shuttle maintenance.

No one has suggested thin budgets are directly to blame for Columbia's loss. But the accident could mean more money for NASA, including funds for stalled plans to build space vehicles.

Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., says the tragedy will, "if anything, work to enhance NASA funding." The top Democrat on the House panel that controls NASA funding sees a "new impetus" to build an orbital plane that could replace shuttles. But "funding for NASA, as with everything else ... is tight."

Contributing: Jim Drinkard, Kathy Kiely, Mark Memmott