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Report: Worker shortage threatens space shuttle safety

File image of the space shuttle Atlantis on the launch pad  

(CNN) -- The loss of seasoned NASA engineers and technicians could threaten the safety of the space shuttle as the aging workhorse begins its busiest flight schedule ever, according to a new government report.

NASA plans to double the annual number of launches to assemble the International Space Station (ISS), beginning September 8 with the launch of the Atlantis.

Besides the increased flight schedule, the staff has been called upon to begin the most ambitious series of upgrades on the entire shuttle fleet. Yet the shuttle workforce has dropped 33 percent since 1995.

"Workforce reductions are jeopardizing NASA's ability to safely support the shuttle's planned flight rate," says the report from the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), a congressional investigative body.

Cult 3-D model of the
Space shuttle Columbia


Reduced to 1,800 employees, the shuttle program has many unfilled positions and current employees "(show) signs of overwork and fatigue," the report says, citing numerous internal NASA studies.

NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown said the agency has made serious efforts to hire more skilled employees.

"We agree with the GAO activities that they address. They basically concur with the direction that we are going," he said.

Four shuttles went into space in fiscal years 1998 and 1999. NASA has scheduled nine missions for fiscal year 2001, a pace the agency plans to match for some years to service the unfinished ISS, which is expected to host its first residents later this year.

The peak space station assembly period coincides with a comprehensive upgrade for the shuttle fleet. NASA also is working on designs for a new reusable launch vehicle to replace the aging space shuttle, which first took to the skies in 1981.

But development of the next-generation technology has proved costly and slow. NASA, now expecting the shuttle to last until 2012, has set aside $2.2 billion for shuttle upgrades over the next five years, primarily to improve safety.

NASA grounded the entire shuttle fleet a year ago when a short circuit shut down a critical engine controller on the Columbia seconds after launch. Technicians found wiring defects on other shuttles that could have caused major problems.

In March, a panel of aerospace experts reached a conclusion similar to that of the GAO: that shrinking staffing has jeopardized the safety of the program.

The GAO report notes that NASA, which this summer requested its first budget increase in six years, has taken steps to address the personnel issue. Since December the agency has hired 95 people and requested funding for 278 more.

"We have instituted a plan to hire more quality control people. We agree with the GAO report and they agree with our strategy. So it's a win-win situation," said Brown.

But the shuttle safety upgrades alone could require more than 200 engineers, according to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The GAO report notes that serious staffing challenges will remain in the future, as the shuttle program has more than twice as many workers over 60 years of age than under 30.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, requested the GAO study in August 1999, weeks after the Columbia mishap. McCain, who chairs the Senate committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, has sought stricter congressional oversight over the budget of the U.S. space program.

NASA scientists watch for wind, rain as shuttle Atlantis heads home
May 28, 2000
Atlantis returns to Earth; NASA calls mission success
May 29, 2000
Mission accomplished: Shuttle crew rests after departing repaired space station
May 27, 2000
Atlantis crew prepares to wrap up space station mission
May 25, 2000
Atlantis lifts off on fourth try
May 19, 2000

Shuttle Orbiter Atlantis (OV-104)
The United States General Accounting Office
Johnson Space Center
Human Space Flight (HSF) - International Space Station

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