NASA BEGAN a new era in Space Shuttle operations on 1 October with the formal award of a six-year, $7 billion space-operations contract to the United Space Alliance, a partnership of Rockwell and Lockheed Martin.

The privatisation will consolidate ground processing and in-flight operations with a single company, as part of a bid by NASA to cut its annual $3.2 billion Space Shuttle operations budget to $2.5 billion by 2000 (Flight International, 31 July-6 August).

NASA says that the commercialisation of Shuttle operations to that akin to an airline, will be accomplished "-while maintaining safety as the top priority and keeping the current annual flight rate [seven to eight missions] intact".

The United Space Alliance will be penalised severely for failing to meet cost savings, but will be awarded 35% of additional costs saved after an initial target of $400 million has been met. NASA will retain control of launch decisions, responsibility for safety and will own the four Shuttle orbiters.

Engineers inspecting one of the solid-rocket boosters recovered after the STS79 launch found a 150mm-long metal wrench in the engine compartment, which had been left by a technician after pre-launch testing. The booster's nozzle also showed excessive erosion of insulation. About 12.5mm of the 37.5-75mm-thick carbon material had been burned away, leaving 50 to 60 gouges 150-600mm long and 70mm wide.

The STS79/Atlantis had returned US astronaut Shannon Lucid to Earth after she completed a record (by a woman) 188-day 5h space flight, mainly aboard the Russian Mir 1 space station.

The fourth docking in the Shuttle Mir Mission programme, the STS79 delivered another US astronaut, John Blaha. He will be retrieved from the Mir by the STS81/Atlantis, which will be preceded on 8 November by the seventh and last Shuttle mission of 1996, the STS 80/Columbia.

Source: Flight International