ORLANDO, Fla. - Twice in the past two years, auditors have warned NASA that it wasn't keeping adequate watch over how its main space shuttle contractor was handling safety operations.
NASA's own internal auditors painted a picture of confusion and breakdowns in a system designed to supervise the main contractor that runs the day-to-day management of the shuttle program, United Space Alliance.
In one report issued in 2001, auditors even found disagreement among some NASA managers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston about who was ultimately responsible for the safety of the shuttle program.
As the criticisms have been published in government reports, National Aeronautics and Space Administration managers have taken steps to correct the problems. But just three days before the Columbia disaster this month, congressional auditors again took issue with NASA's supervision. They found that the space agency "placed little emphasis on end results, product performance and cost control."
Contracts and cuts
In light of the loss of Columbia, the way NASA has supervised United Space Alliance will likely be analyzed anew. The company, a joint venture of Boeing Co. and Lockheed-Martin, signed a six-year, $7 billion contract with NASA in 1996. The deal has since been extended and is now worth nearly $10 billion.
For every $1 that United Space Alliance saves beyond the target cost to run the shuttle program, it gets 35 cents. But 80 percent of the contract fee is tied to maintaining safety.
Critics have argued that work force reductions fueled by budget cuts have stripped NASA of qualified people needed to oversee crucial operations.
"You can trust the contractor if you have an overseer who understands the process," said Howard McCurdy, professor of public administration at American University and author of six books about the space program. "If there is no technical capability, then the contractor can get away with things. I think that's the fear, and we'll have a full investigation of that."
The 'top priority'
Both NASA and United Space Alliance contend that safety has never been compromised.
"Safety has been and remains USA's top priority," said company spokesman Mike Curie. "The inspector general [NASA's auditors] did not identify any violations or issues but made some recommendations."
USA cites its own statistics to support that contention. Since the company took over the day-to-day management of the shuttle in 1996, launch cancellations because of technical problems have dropped 67 percent. And the number of reported in-flight troubles has fallen by about 70 percent.
But in a report last summer by NASA's internal watchdogs, auditors found that the space agency was not keeping an eye on the contractor as its own rules required. Instead of providing day-to-day supervision of USA's ground operations, such as launch preparation and execution, workers at Kennedy Space Center were auditing and spot-checking contractors' work. And in some areas, such as repairs, maintenance and handling of spare parts, the government provided no oversight. Because of that, the report says, it was impossible for NASA to be sure that USA followed all required safety procedures.
In one example, a Kennedy Space Center manager refused to accept some oversight responsibilities for maintenance and repairs because she didn't feel qualified, the report said. But NASA did not appoint anyone to replace her in that position. After the audit, NASA agreed to assign a manager at the space center to oversee day-to-day operations of the contractor.
Auditors said their study did not necessarily mean that USA didn't follow safety procedures - just that NASA wasn't checking. Although the lapse could pose a potential danger to the shuttle, many other safety procedures down the line are set up to catch any problems that might have started in the area the auditors studied, the inspectors said.
"A number of things would have to go wrong," said Paul Shawcross, executive officer in NASA's inspector general's office. "It's a long [safety] chain."
In another report issued in 2001, auditors also identified safety problems. They found that workers at the Johnson Space Center failed to keep adequate watch on safety operations.
Specifically at issue was the use of $13 million earmarked for safety oversight. Although the money was spent on safety, the auditors said its allocation among offices assigned to safety programs wasn't properly coordinated so that everyone knew what everyone else was doing.
"They should all be working together, but they weren't," Shawcross said.
The auditors said that Johnson's top managers couldn't be assured that the center's bureaucracy was adequately overseeing key safety components of the space shuttle program, such as avionics, flight crew and mission operations or orbiter vehicle engineering.
Auditors found troubles with Johnson's organizational structure. They found that the description of duties for shuttle program safety overlapped and conflicted. In fact, the center's structure was so unclear that on an organizational chart, there appeared to be an additional office responsible for shuttle program safety when in fact the office did not exist, according to the report.
"These duplicate responsibilities have resulted in disagreement among space shuttle program and safety and mission assurance managers about who is ultimately responsible for the safety of the space shuttle program," the report said.
Shawcross said it was too difficult for the auditors to determine the ultimate effect of their findings on the shuttle's safety.
"It [NASA] is a very complex organization," he said. "It's hard to say if you have disagreement in one area, what the magnitude of effect that would have."
Johnson's management did not agree with all the findings but fixed the weaknesses. For example, managers clarified roles and responsibilities in the safety program.
NASA's ability to oversee contractors has been a concern for more than a decade. In the mid-1990s, a task force studying the shuttle program believed it would be better for NASA to direct shuttle operations to one company instead of juggling multiple contractors. The idea was to let that one contractor - USA - run the program with little government interference and generally less government oversight.
Critics immediately denounced the plan, saying it represented a major cutback from safety standards that were established after the explosion of Challenger in 1986, during the 25th launch of the shuttle.
The new arrangement was designed to eliminate some duplication. The task force had concluded that many part replacements and extra safety checks were no longer as necessary as they once were. Some systems were checked and then rechecked four more times, the report noted, and 150 parts were replaced after every shuttle mission even though, on average, only 10 problems cropped up during each flight.
"Because of what happened after the Challenger accident, the Rogers Commission came in and laid a bunch of requirements on NASA. What NASA did was increase the amount of paperwork," Norman Parmet, chairman of NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, said in 1995. "After the Challenger accident, I don't think anybody would have dared to challenge what the Rogers Commission said. Experience says they can. They've had some 40 flights now, and they've run pretty damned good."
The idea immediately drew criticism and worries about safety.
"I remain very concerned that decisions are being driven purely by dollars," Rep. Dave Weldon, a Florida Republican whose district included Kennedy Space Center, said in 1995. At that time, he submitted a list of complaints and questions from space center workers to a congressional committee.
The workers worried that NASA was relinquishing important oversight tasks in an "uncontrolled and unorganized transition" to the private contractor.
"The contractor now has the technical superiority," McCurdy said. "And that puts them in the driver's seat."
Debbie Salamone is a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.