Mar 3, 2003
The catastrophic break-up and crash of the Columbia space shuttle on February 1 that cost the lives of seven astronauts might have been officially labeled an accident. But it certainly was not a surprise. The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, NASA's own independent monitor, had been warning about unsafe conditions in the shuttle program for years. As recently as last April, the chairman of the NASA's safety monitoring panel, Richard Blomberg, had told Congress, "I have never been as worried for space shuttle safety as I am right now." And these concerns were echoed by a whole host of government auditors, former technicians and other experts connected to the shuttle program.
After recent near-misses, NASA's safety panel put its finger on the cause of the problems: "In spite of the clear mandate that neither schedule nor cost should ever be allowed to compromise safety... NASA is driven by achieving cost and staff reductions, and the pressures placed on increasing flights."
Not only did these earlier warnings fall on deaf ears. Five of NASA's most vocal critics on the independent safety monitoring board, including Chairman Blomberg, were forced out by the government in the months before the fatal Columbia disaster.
To say that cost cuts have taken their toll on NASA is an understatement. Since 1990, funding for the shuttle program had been cut by 40%. Last year, NASA had its budget cut by one billion dollars, even while the government increased funding for military space flights by 600 million dollars.
At the same time, NASA has farmed out 95% of the work of building and repairing the shuttle fleet to private industry. In 1996, the Clinton administration put most of the responsibility for the day to day running and maintaining of the shuttle program in the hands of United Space Alliance (USA), a consortium owned jointly by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the two biggest military contractors in the world.
The Clinton administration justified this privatization by saying that private corporations would find more cost savings. And it's true they found "cost-savings" by cutting back their workforces. This certainly pushed up their profits – but at the expense of both safety and scientific research.
At the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, operated by Lockheed, for example, the company cut the number of employees in half, even while the facility turned out more work. After the shuttle disaster, employees told reporters that managers encourage them to cut corners and that they are often not trained for their jobs. Workers also said that defects were often papered over, and not reported to NASA. Some unauthorized repairs concerned the application of the fuel tanks' foam insulation – the same insulation now suspected of causing the damage to the shuttle's wing.
Up and down the line, the shuttle program has been plagued by the same "cost-cutting." As another example – NASA gave Raytheon and Johnson Controls a fat contract to operate the special cameras that photograph the shuttle launch. But the telescopic lens of one of the cameras has been broken for months and it hasn't been repaired and its images are fuzzy. At the same time, these companies laid off most of their experienced camera operators. So, the fuzzy images taken by inexperienced technicians are what NASA depends on to analyze what happened during the shuttle launch.
The corporations have it enshrined in their contracts that for every dollar they cut from the cost of the space shuttle, they get to keep 35 cents. So, the more money they save for NASA, the greater the profit they make for themselves. These companies are very open about what their first priority is in doing space work. After winning its latest big contract for space work from the government, Lockheed wrote in promotional material that its space work was "designed for the journey from NASA to NYSE (New York Stock Exchange)."