NASA Belt-Tightening Prompts Safety Questions

Shuttles must fly another 15 years, probably without modernization

AS workers at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida prepare the shuttle Atlantis for next week's launch, concern is growing over whether shuttle ``lean'' is in danger of becoming shuttle ``lite'' - threatening the safety of the entire shuttle program.

Along with other federal activities, this program has been hit by budget cuts as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration struggles to fit big-ticket ambitions into essentially flat budgets.

From $4 billion in fiscal 1993, the shuttle budget has slipped to $3.2 billion for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Within that overall figure, spending on safety and performance upgrades has fallen from $1.1 billion in 1993 to $904 million in 1994. NASA is still in the process of determining how much of the $3.2 billion to allocate to the safety and upgrade account this year.

``The last budget pulled the noose pretty tight,'' says Norman Parmet, chairman of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, a group set up by Congress during the Apollo program to help oversee manned spaceflight operations.

While some of the pressure on NASA's budget comes from the general antideficit mood in Congress, pressure also is coming from within the agency itself, particularly from people in the space sciences, says John Logsdon, director of the space-policy program at George Washington University in Washington. ``Most of the agency's budget is so mortgaged to the shuttle and space station that there's no room for anything else,'' he says.

NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin has responded to the situation by calling for a thorough review of the shuttle program in the wake of the budget cuts. Aside from gauging the impact of recent cuts, the ``zero-base work force review'' will see if further savings are possible without undercutting flight safety.

The shuttle program already is changing in subtle ways: Orbiters are frequently launched on Thursdays or Fridays, instead of Sundays, to reduce weekend overtime pay for ground crews preparing the orbiters for each mission; and mission managers are more likely to postpone a launch for weather the day before launch rather than on the day of the launch, which saves the cost of loading and unloading fuel. Last spring, NASA used this approach with a mission involving the shuttle Columbia and saved $400,000 in fueling costs.

Less subtle are the bigger-ticket items that have been cut or stretched out: For example, a $17-million project to replace shuttle cables with fiber-optic lines has been axed, and the savings are being used to offset the budget cuts. The fiber-optic lines were part of an upgrade designed to save weight on the orbiters in the face of heavier payloads anticipated for space-station construction.

Indeed, the United States General Accounting Office (GAO) has expressed concern about what it sees as NASA's lack of a long-term plan to incorporate upgrades for the shuttles. The GAO points out that with a next-generation orbiter all but out of the question, the current fleet of four shuttles will need to operate for another 15 years. Yet the orbiters are basically using 1970s technology, raising the question of whether they are becoming the spaceflight equivalents of the older DC-3s in a Boeing 767 era.

Changes also include reductions in the work force. ``The real cost driver is labor,'' says Lee Edwards, acting assistant director of defense management and NASA issues at the GAO, noting that some 5,000 people are involved in processing the orbiters at the Kennedy Space Center. NASA officials say they are replacing only about half of those who retire or quit.

One congressional staff member who monitors the space program points out that for every person holding a wrench, seven oversee the work. ``Is that really necessary for safety?'' he asks. He points to the Navy's approach in building submarines, which also must endure extreme physical conditions. ``The guy on the line bears more responsibility for building reliability in from the beginning,'' he says, an arrangement that requires less oversight.

NASA managers insist that safety remains the paramount concern as they look for more ways to save money. The GAO is currently conducting a study of NASA's cost-cutting efforts. While declining to go into specifics prior to the report's completion in January or February, Mr. Lee does say that ``we've seen evidence of managers rejecting cost-cutting suggestions for safety reasons.''

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