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Rockwell's Palmdale Plant to Overhaul Shuttle : Aerospace industry: NASA had tentatively planned to transfer all refit work to Florida.


WASHINGTON — Rockwell International's Palmdale plant has been chosen to refit the 7-year-old space shuttle Atlantis, allowing the spacecraft to stay aloft longer and possibly enabling it to rendezvous with a Russian space station, officials said Wednesday.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration had tentatively planned to transfer all shuttle refit work to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a move that would have cost as many as 400 jobs at the Palmdale facility, according to Sen. John Seymour (R-Calif.)

The value of the Atlantis work was not immediately available, a NASA spokesman said.

The decision to give the refit work to Rockwell was hailed by California lawmakers. "At a time when most aerospace news in Southern California hasn't been pleasant, it's refreshing to see an organization that's willing to make a commitment to keep a talented . . . work force employed in California," Seymour said.

In January, 37 of California's 45 House members wrote to President Bush, urging him to reconsider NASA's plan to perform future maintenance in Florida. They argued that the move would damage NASA's ability to support the shuttle program, largely because it would cripple the Palmdale work force and slow the flow of spare parts.

The argument was apparently persuasive.

"Performing the work at Palmdale . . . gives us the added advantage of being able to maintain a skilled, highly effective work force in California, which is essential for us to carry out our structural spares work," said Thomas Utsman, NASA's shuttle program manager.

The nation has four space shuttles--Columbia, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour--all built at Palmdale by the Space Systems Division of Rockwell International.

Columbia, currently flying the longest shuttle mission ever, already has been overhauled. Work on the Discovery is progressing in Florida by workers for Lockheed Corp. The $2-billion Endeavour, the newest in the fleet, flew its maiden voyage in May. A fifth shuttle, the Challenger, was destroyed in a January, 1986, explosion that killed seven astronauts.

The Atlantis was delivered to Kennedy Space Center in April, 1985, and lifted off on its first flight the following October. Its later missions included the launch of the Galileo interplanetary probe to Jupiter in 1989 and the deployment of the Gamma Ray Observatory in 1991.

In addition to reconfiguring storage facilities and crew quarters aboard the Atlantis, the refit will include additions of a 40-foot-wide drag chute to ease landings, new plumbing and electrical connections to make possible extended flights, and a host of new avionics systems.

The overhaul also could include modifications that would permit the shuttle to rendezvous with the Russian MIR space station sometime in 1994 or 1995. During Russian President Boris Yeltsin's visit to Washington last month, he and President Bush signed an agreement calling for such a joint mission

The 12-month refit project is scheduled to begin after Atlantis returns from its next mission, scheduled for the end of the month.

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