NASA faces upgrade problems

As shuttle runs near end, funding choices get tough

December 27, 2004|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,THE ORLANDO SENTINEL

WASHINGTON -- As NASA works to return the space shuttle to flight, it is also facing a growing problem: when, and how, to stop upgrading a fleet that is headed for mothballs.

In the aftermath of the February 2003 accident that destroyed the shuttle Columbia and killed seven astronauts, the space agency received a new agenda -- and a firm deadline to retire the remaining three orbiters when construction of the international space station is complete, sometime around the end of the decade.

That settled a question that had lingered for years. But it also meant NASA had to rethink its plans to add a number of improvements to the orbiters, even as it spends an estimated $1.19 billion to fix safety issues exposed by the Columbia tragedy.

The vision for NASA laid out by President Bush in January presented the return of the shuttle, and the completion of the station project, as the first step in moving the space program toward the moon and beyond. When the shuttle is retired, the budget for the program -- $4.3 billion next year -- will form the foundation of the funding for the new initiatives.

In some ways, the two objectives are at cross purposes. NASA has to spend money to keep the aging shuttles safe, but also must be careful not to waste money on improvements that don't offer much benefit before the end of the program.

Michael Kostelnik, who oversees the shuttle and station program at NASA headquarters in Washington, said the problem is deciding just how to invest in the vehicle while limiting that investment. NASA expects to fly the shuttle more than two-dozen times before retiring the fleet.

"It's going to be a tough battle," Kostelnik said. "It's not that this is easy, and there are certainly resource limits, but the space shuttle is a real vehicle that must return to flight to get the job done."

To that end, NASA once again has revamped the effort to look at proposed upgrades and decide which are worth the money, time and training investment. That process had just changed when Columbia broke apart over east Texas not quite two years ago, and it has evolved since Bush presented the new vision for the agency.

"It actually gave us the opportunity to think about what we should be doing differently," Kostelnik said.

Only three programs have been canceled, which will save about $177 million and potentially affect 470 jobs, mostly NASA contractors.

The first program -- the second phase of the Advanced Health Management System program -- was to include a slight change in the shuttle's main engines as well as better information in the cockpit for the crew. But there were questions about whether the change would reduce risk to the crew as much as had been predicted. Ultimately, it was deemed largely unnecessary.

NASA will save $31 million because of the decision not to proceed with the program, agency spokesman Allard Beutel said. That will affect 121 positions, all employees working on the first phase of the program, including six NASA employees.

The second canceled upgrade was for the orbiters' cockpits, to make the instrument panels easier to read. When NASA decided to go ahead with the changes, the agency also planned to fly the shuttle until at least 2020, and perhaps longer. When officials went back to re-examine the idea, an internal study showed that the upgrade could be installed in only two of the three orbiters before the fleet is retired, Beutel said.

Canceling the program will save $25 million -- NASA already has spent $398 million on it -- and affect 215 jobs, including 20 NASA civil servants.

The third program to be scrapped was the Orbiter Vehicle Health Monitoring System, essentially a newer, better version of the data recorders now on the shuttle. Instead of replacing the recorders, Beutel said, NASA will replace the recording tapes to extend the lives of the devices, as well as redesign them to allow more data to be transmitted to the ground during a mission. The agency already is adding new sensors to the orbiters' wings as part of the return-to-flight effort.

"It's improving the system we have, versus putting in a new one," Beutel said. The first new recorder would not have been available until 2006, with the remaining two coming in the next year. Scrapping the plans will save NASA $121 million and will affect 133 contractor jobs.

Beutel said that all of the civil servants affected by the decision will be reassigned to other jobs; most work at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Shuttle contractors are trying to make sure that the positions affected by the cancellations are folded into other operations.

Jeff Carr, a spokesman for United Space Alliance, the joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin that manages much of the shuttle's operations, said his company hopes to accommodate anyone threatened by the cancellations.

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