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So Close, and Yet So Far : Two area aerospace firms lose out in space station decision

August 22, 1993

Bringing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's cumbersome bureaucracy into line will not be without pain for an already hurting Southern California economy.

In its latest acknowledgment of political realities, NASA last week chose Seattle-based Boeing Co. as the prime contractor for a scaled-back version of the space station. That signaled the space agency's seriousness about controlling costs.

But Boeing's selection left out two other contenders for the plum assignment: Rockwell International's Rocketdyne unit in Canoga Park and McDonnell Douglas' aerospace unit in Huntington Beach. They will have to be content with whatever subcontracting comes their way. Of course even that will be some help within the battered aerospace industry, which drew hope last week from Saudi Arabia's plan to buy $6 billion in new passenger jets from McDonnell and Boeing.

Rockwell, which has worked on the space station power system, just opened a $15-million facility in Canoga Park for space station work. And McDonnell Douglas, which has worked on the station truss, or backbone, has 3,000 people in Huntington Beach involved directly and indirectly with the space station. These facilities will get some work--as will other contractors--but far from the hoped-for amount. The big question is what the ultimate redesign of the space station will be, for Congress still has not made its final decisions. To keep the project alive, NASA recognized the urgency of tightening lines of authority and cutting personnel costs.

Under NASA's arcane reporting structure, all three contenders had been designated as prime contractors, each reporting to a separate NASA research center. But the Clinton Administration pointedly made controlling costs a centerpiece of its support for continuing the space station program. The naming of Boeing as prime contractor--unfortunate as it was for McDonnell Douglas and Rockwell--was the outcome of the government's cost-control reforms.

It's difficult to quarrel with containing costs, especially considering the persistent questions about even having a space station in a time of national budgetary crunch.

Certainly the case for jobs and a new direction for the aerospace industry in Southern California is strong. The Clinton Administration's expressed hope that the space station would promote new technologies and economic development fits nicely with the dream of retooling the region's military-based economy. Yet proponents have had difficulty selling both the scientific value and the costs of the space station experiments in such areas as metallurgy.

If there was doubt about the margin of support for the space station, that disappeared in June when the House decided by a single vote to keep the project alive. Now, for Southern California, the glass is clearly not full. The question will be: How empty is it?

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