Anybody want to talk about privatization?

The thunderous explosion of Columbia over central Texas yesterday was presaged by a drumbeat of warnings by government auditors and experts who voiced concerns about lapses in oversight and deferred safety improvements for NASA’s aging fleet of space shuttles


Some of the safety alarms stemmed from what experts have described as inadequate NASA oversight of those parts of the program that have been privatized. Just three days ago, for example, the General Accounting Office (GAO) described NASA’s management of its major contractors as “weak” and “debilitating,” and accused the space agency of placing “little emphasis on end results [or] product performance.”

The GAO report was the latest in a series by the congressional auditing agency faulting NASA’s management of major programs, including the shuttle. Weak contract management had been ranked as a “high-risk” problem at NASA since at least 1990, the report said.


In 1996, NASA turned over space shuttle flight operations to the United Space Alliance, a private firm owned by Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. Under pressure from the Clinton administration and Congress to cut costs, NASA had gradually shifted many responsibilities to the private sector.

United Space is now considered the prime contractor for the space shuttle program and manages about a third of the program’s budget. In addition to its role as part of United Space, Bethesda-based Lockheed also provides many crucial functions, including construction of the external tank that feeds liquid propellant to the shuttle’s three main engines. It also develops the electronic systems that perform navigation, guidance and flight control for the space program and manages data collection, said spokesman Tom Jurkowsky.

While NASA managers have described their contractor oversight as adequate, NASA’s Office of Inspector General disagreed. “The lack of systematic and well-documented contract surveillance is a particular area of concern,” the inspector general said in a report last June.