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3 Space Engineers at Rockwell Told They Risk Firing

May 08, 1987|LEE DYE | Times Science Writer

Three senior Rockwell aerospace engineers who publicly criticized the proposed design of the space station have been reprimanded by their superiors and warned that they risk being fired if they persist.

The engineers said in interviews last month that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's design for the space station is seriously flawed, and they insisted that the atmosphere that pervades the space agency and the aerospace industry stifles criticism. Their charges were included in an article in The Times on April 26.

In reaction to the article, all three engineers, who have worked on numerous space projects over lengthy careers, were officially reprimanded by Rockwell International Corp. for "very poor judgment and unprofessional conduct" because they had not cleared their comments with the company's public affairs office.

More Action Possible

The reprimand further stated that continued efforts to express their dissent "will be cause for additional corrective action up to and including termination of your employment."

Despite the warnings from Rockwell, one of the largest aerospace companies in the country, all three--Oliver P. Harwood, 64, Donald E. Koch, 61, and John E. Krieter, 56--vowed to continue their campaign.

Harwood, in fact, said he plans to accept an invitation to testify May 20 in Washington before the Senate subcommittee that funds NASA, chaired by Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.).

Harwood cited the reprimand as proof that the industry is so eager to "supply what NASA wants" that there is no opportunity for creative people to pursue other concepts.

A senior Rockwell official disputed that claim but suggested that in this case the engineers may have to sacrifice their jobs if they continue.

Company Stand

"It's not a question of saying you can't pursue it," said Ed Kennedy, director of external affairs for Rockwell Space Operations in Downey. "You can, but not as part of us."

The controversy grew in part out of an innovative design for a space station that Harwood came up with three years ago. The design has won praise from a number of NASA engineers who have seen it because it uses only six interchangeable parts and could be put into operation with perhaps as few as four shuttle flights.

The station NASA has proposed would require at least 11 flights, nearly half the number of missions completed in the entire history of the space shuttle program.

The design, which Harwood said would permit radical changes in the station as its uses become better defined, consists of components--either habitable modules or struts--laid out in triangular patterns, long recognized as being among the strongest geometrical concepts. Three modules, connected at the corners with spherical nodes that would also serve as anchor posts for such things as solar panels and antennas, would form the first phase of the station.

Following the design concept made famous by Buckminster Fuller and his geodesic dome, other modules and struts could be added at any time, allowing the station to grow indefinitely while retaining its strength, Harwood said.

The three engineers say that Harwood's design was offered to Rockwell but the company was not interested in it because it was not the design that NASA had indicated it wanted. All three insist that they tried repeatedly to get their superiors to at least do a complete study of the proposal, but with no success.

Kennedy, Rockwell's external affairs director, said that the company did look at Harwood's design, but didn't like it.

Different Viewpoint

"Their system is optimized from one point of view, but not from all points," he said. He did not specify what Rockwell found wrong with the design.

Rockwell instead came up with a design that is identical in many ways with the proposal submitted by its chief competitor for the lucrative space station contract, McDonnell Douglas Corp. Both those designs, in turn, are almost identical to the "reference configuration" put out by NASA to guide companies competing for the design contract.

NASA's design includes four habitable modules straddled by a huge beam to which instruments and various devices can be attached. The space agency claims that design allows other modules and other beams to be added later, thus expanding the use of the facility. Two of the habitable modules are to be supplied by the United States, one by the European Space Agency and one by Japan.

Conflict of Interest

Kennedy said that once Harwood's design was rejected by Rockwell, the engineers placed themselves in a conflict of interest situation by continuing to push for a design that differed dramatically from the one offered by their own company.

"At what point does a professional engineer say 'I understand' and go on to his next job? Those disciplinary actions reflect that that time has come, and their effort is counterproductive as Rockwell employees," Kennedy said.

"That's a bunch of horse crap," responded one of the engineers, Koch.

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