Originally created 12/29/96

NASA out to prove shuttles safe despite monumental changes



CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The last time Steven Hawley saw the Hubble Space Telescope, he'd just dropped it off in orbit - a poignant end, he figured, to his space-flying career.

Nearly seven years later, Hawley is coming out of astronaut retirement to revisit the world's most famous telescope.

It's more than the call of Hubble. Hawley wants to convince naysayers the space shuttle is safe to fly now that private industry is calling more and more of the shots with fewer and fewer people.

As deputy director of flight crew operations, Hawley helped pave the way for the shift of day-to-day shuttle operations from NASA to United Space Alliance, a joint business venture. Flying aboard Discovery on the Hubble servicing mission in February is his way of saying - showing - how much he believes in this new, money-saving system, and how everyone else should, too.

"I didn't have anybody who was saying critical things about what we were doing or saying, `Hey, you signed up for this, you get to go do it,' " the 45-year-old Hawley says. "But I thought it would be a show of support that we were trying to do things in good faith."

That's what it's come down to at NASA: monumental leaps of faith.

But not everyone is leaping.

Never mind that the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, after a six-month review commissioned by the White House, could find no evidence of increased risk from NASA's streamlining efforts.

Jose Garcia, a shuttle operations manager, contends it's a dangerous mistake for NASA to give up so much responsibility, and that the space agency is headed down the same path that led to the Challenger accident. All seven crew members died when Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986.

Most believe another accident is inevitable, no matter who's in charge. With more than 1 million parts per shuttle - 3,200 of them life-or-death critical - it only stands to reason something, some day, will break and endanger the crew. It also seems logical that workers' preoccupation with job cuts could lead to more mistakes.

Before Challenger fell from the sky, NASA claimed the likelihood of a catastrophic shuttle accident was 1-in-100,000.

NASA's current risk assessment: 1-in-148.

Senior astronaut Story Musgrave believes it's probably more like 1-in-70 or 1-in-80, a personal assessment that contributes to his fright every time he takes off in a shuttle. He expresses that fear, openly and often.

Surprisingly, Musgrave's bosses appreciate his candor, assuring him "the risk ought to be communicated so that when something happens, you keep going."

Not if. When.

Musgrave's sixth and final spaceflight - Columbia's recent, hatch-marred journey, the first under the new order - was shuttle mission No. 80.

Challenger's doomed flight was No. 25.

That's 55 missions since Challenger and counting.

"We're operating a risky system and trying to minimize that risk," says Garcia. "All I'm saying is, when you change the way you do business, it's riskier. You add more risk by making changes."

These are changes of the revolutionary sort.

On Oct. 1, after 15« years of micromanaging practically all space shuttle work, NASA began turning over routine chores to United Space Alliance under a $7 billion, six-year contract.

USA is the making of Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., which always have done the bulk of shuttle work.

Stung by deep budget cuts with more on the way, NASA needs help in reducing the cost of its $3 billion-a-year shuttle program, especially if shuttles are to continue flying for another 15 years or more as planned. USA promises to save at least $400 million in shuttle costs over the life of the contract - essentially by consolidating work and eliminating jobs - while maintaining safety and a flight rate of seven or eight a year.

"We've got a lot of redundant work going on now between government and contractors," explains NASA's shuttle operations director, Bob Sieck. "If we can vector the government people into stepping back a little bit and looking at the processes as opposed to worrying about every word on every piece of paper, we'll probably have a better product."

So far, NASA has turned over 100 of 400 shuttle tasks to USA.

USA's chief executive officer, Kent Black, expects most of the jobs to be in USA hands before shuttles start hauling up parts of the international space station next December. The transition should be completed by 2000, midway through station construction.

One of the last things to go will be NASA's role in replacing faulty shuttle parts. USA eventually will make that decision alone under NASA's watchful eye.

"We all suffer a certain degree of anxiety just because we're going to be doing things a little different," astronaut Hawley says.

Some things won't change: NASA will continue to manage the countdown and give the final "go" for launch, and retain its policy of "anyone involved can stop a space shuttle launch."

"This badge still has 51 percent of the vote," says Sieck, flashing his NASA badge. "If we say `Stop,' the contractor's going to stop because we're the customer."

Aerospace honchos have likened NASA's new role to that of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Many bristle, though, at that comparison and at what seem to be never-ending cuts.

"We are putting humans in space and learning a lot of things, and yet because we've done it over and over again, it's very easy from a Beltway point of view to just do it with less and less and less," says David Leestma, director of flight crew operations and a former astronaut.

"It is not an airliner. We in NASA and in the space shuttle program could not accept the airliners' safety record. We can't survive a Valujet."

The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel warned in its December report that shuttle safety could be jeopardized if too many skilled and experienced workers leave or if too much funding is cut.

NASA and USA insist no essential jobs, or people, will be eliminated.

The shuttle program, already down more than 5,000 jobs, currently employs about 2,500 NASA and 21,500 contracted workers nationwide, including 10,620 who work for USA.

Glynn Lunney, USA's shuttle program manager, says contractor job cuts will be on the order of just a few percent a year.

"For whatever the reasons, people are still extremely nervous about it and it's hard to get at it," Lunney says. "The numbers and the percentages are not large. We're in single digits, low single digits. It's not like 20 percent of the people are going out tomorrow."

Worker discontent is perhaps most evident on the Internet. The World Wide Web's Space Coast Rumor Mill is rife with gripes and gossip.

USA's Black regularly reads the Rumor Mill, as much as it irritates him. He tries to counter the criticism - and boost morale - by meeting monthly with Kennedy workers.

"It is not as dire as the Rumor Mill would have you believe," Black says. "Although I think our people are uneasy as people always are in any time of major change - it's just human nature - I would say that they're more settled down than they were six months ago."

It could be that USA employees, like NASA's Garcia, have simply accepted what they cannot change.

"All I can do," Garcia says, "is do my best, make it as safe as possible, and hope and pray I'm wrong."