The BOEING/Lockheed Martin United Space Alliance (USA) has had a successful first year as NASA's prime contractor for the Space Shuttle programme (see box), but it has been overshadowed by the need to lay off about 363 of its 6,000 workers at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, because of NASA budget difficulties.

NASA has overspent by about $200 million this year and has studied ways to make up the deficit. One of these is to save on payments to USA, by allowing the company to cut jobs. Despite the success of the USA, many at Kennedy have expressed their concerns about the effect of it laying off workers on 13 February, fears which have been echoed by some in the local community and by people further afield. There will also be 170 voluntary redundancies.

With Shuttle safety paramount, observers fear that a Challenger-like scenario is being created, with the USA trying to do too much with less. The NASA move apart, USA's policy is to cut costs, and that may include further lay offs. NASA has stated that its enforced lay offs and USA's quest to achieve lower operating costs "-will not compromise safety".

The US independent body, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel says, however, that NASA and USA's action was "shortsighted and potentially dangerous".

A leaked internal NASA report also details concerns about the effect on increased flight rates of eight to nine a year needed in 1999 onwards to support the International Space Station. The report says that there is a potential for a working environment in which the "can do" attitude of the workforce could result "-in individuals creating shortcuts to maintain tight schedules while inadvertently relegating safety to second priority".

USA's president Paul Smith says: "The company remains committed to flying the Shuttle safely, supporting the manifest and continuing to reduce cost - in that order of priority".

Daniel Goldin, NASA's administrator, told a concerned local chamber of commerce meeting here that arbitrary cuts were not being made that would affect safety, while adding: "We are holding United accountable for giving us the lowest cost and highest level of safety and we are going to encourage them to do that-the issue is safety at the lowest possible cost." Republican Congressman Dave Weldon, who represents nearby Palm Bay, responds: "You just don't do business like this with manned spacecraft."

In October 1996, NASA awarded USA a seven year, $7 billion contract, with options for two two-year extensions, to privatise launch and flight operations. USA can earn incentive fees by meeting safety and quality standards (40%), achieving mission objectives (40%), improving efficiency (18%) and increasing Shuttle business, through commercialisation (2%).


USA's business covers Kennedy pre-launch processing, launch pad operations, Shuttle landing sites and ground operations support, and, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, astronaut and flight controller training, flight planning and trajectory design, mission execution and flight support, including mission control, training equipment and flight support laboratories.

USA's second operational year includes its taking over work from eight more outside contractors, leading to it eventually taking overall responsibility for all hardware, including the Space Shuttle main engines and solid rocket boosters (SRBs) in following years.

As a first stage, USA has started a bid to acquire Pratt & Whitney's USBI, the company which refurbishes non-motor components on the SRBs, which include the parachutes. USBI's 1,000 workers would be added to USA's payroll at Kennedy by September 1999.

Source: Flight International