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NASA may face shuttle worker shortage

An oversight group says NASA’s efforts to return its aging space shuttles to flight is siphoning away so many workers that mission operations could be hampered.
Technicians Jake Jacobson and Billy Barecka install a reinforced carbon-carbon panel on the right wing of the space shuttle Discovery at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Discovery is due to take the first shuttle flight since last year's Columbia tragedy.
Technicians Jake Jacobson and Billy Barecka install a reinforced carbon-carbon panel on the right wing of the space shuttle Discovery at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Discovery is due to take the first shuttle flight since last year's Columbia tragedy.NASA
/ Source: Reuters

NASA’s efforts to return its aging space shuttles to flight will siphon so many workers away from operations to work on safety that the program could be plagued by a worker shortage in the future, an oversight group warned Wednesday.

Since the fatal Columbia crash in 2003, NASA has created three new departments focused on safety and engineering, making them independent of the shuttle program and its concerns about budget and on-time flights.

But those new departments are being staffed by workers drawn from other shuttle operations who are not necessarily being replaced, said the Return to Flight Task Force, which is charged with verifying whether the space agency has complied with post-Columbia safety mandates.

“At some point, the ability of the space shuttle program to carry out its mission may be hampered by personnel shortages,” the task force wrote in an interim report.

The new departments are still being organized, and the report did not identify the number of workers involved, nor did it offer a recommendation.

NASA gets good marks
NASA’s three remaining shuttles are scheduled to fly until construction of the international space station is complete, around the end of the decade. The job could require as many as 30 flights, although that number is likely to be reduced.

The space agency’s efforts generally got good marks from the task force, co-chaired by Apollo astronaut Thomas Stafford and retired shuttle commander Richard Covey.

With the first post-Columbia flight now scheduled for March or April 2005, NASA has given itself time for actual implementation of some safety measures where the Columbia Accident Investigation Board had required only plans, the task force said.

NASA has cleared three of 15 preflight requirements, by task-force estimates, while making “substantial progress” on the remaining 12.

Problem solved?
But the report concluded that NASA may never be certain it has solved the problem that doomed Columbia, which had to do with foam debris breaking off the external fuel tank and striking the orbiter with tremendous force.

In Columbia’s case, the debris is thought to have gouged a large hole into the leading edge of the wing that made the spacecraft break apart as it re-entered the atmosphere.

The kind of statistical studies of in-flight accidents needed to complete a debris study may not be finished before the shuttles are retired, the report said.

While President Bush’s plan to mothball the fleet and shift NASA’s focus to exploration of the moon and Mars “has obvious implications for the long-run use of the shuttle,” the report concluded that “no matter how long the shuttle is used in the future, it must first be safely returned to flight.”