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NASA's Shuttle Problems Lead to Rocketdyne : Aerospace: Space shuttle launch delays have been traced to problems in the Rockwell unit's engines. The Canoga Park unit says it is improving procedures and training.

August 31, 1993|DON LEE and GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The weather was perfect at Cape Canaveral on Aug. 12 when the space shuttle Discovery's engine roared to life, only to have the launch halted by a computer just three seconds from liftoff. NASA traced the shutdown to a faulty fuel sensor in the engine, and again the finger was pointed at Rocketdyne.

The Canoga Park-based unit of Rockwell International makes the shuttles' main engines. This year those engines have caused two last-second aborted launches, and at least two more launch delays involving the Columbia and Endeavor space shuttles, much to NASA's chagrin.

"It's embarrassing to NASA, and they're annoyed," said Seymour Himmel, a retired NASA engineer who is an aerospace consultant in Cleveland.

NASA Administrator Dan Goldin said in an interview, "The fact of the matter is, we did have quality problems at Rocketdyne."

Rocketdyne's lapses have been both small and big, experts said, some potentially catastrophic to a shuttle launch, such as a missing part in a turbine disk that could cause a shuttle engine to lose thrust. Each shuttle has three main engines, which along with two booster rockets propel the spacecraft into orbit.

As a result, NASA this spring launched an extraordinary inspection of the shuttle engines and Rocketdyne's work. In May a dozen NASA engineers and quality experts arrived for a monthlong review at Rocketdyne's facility in Canoga Park and found two key areas of deficiency: There were discrepancies between NASA's specifications and designs and Rocketdyne's blueprints, and in some cases Rocketdyne's technicians were not following the procedures in their own manuals.

"We recommended to Rocketdyne that they make some fundamental changes," said Wayne Littles, deputy director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., which manages the shuttle engines and has been leading the Rocketdyne investigation. Littles said his team will revisit Rocketdyne's Canoga Park plant next month, to make sure that the company has "set up procedures and policies that will prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future."

Goldin ordered the inspection of Rocketdyne after the missing piece in a turbine assembly was discovered in February, as well as a mislabeled engine part and another piece with the wrong dimensions on an engine pump. That forced the space agency to postpone the Columbia shuttle launch by a month until late March. Then on March 22, the Columbia flight was halted three seconds before liftoff, because a valve in one of the shuttle's main engines picked up a speck of debris and failed to close.

The aborted launches were only the third and fourth times in the shuttles' 12-year history that engines were shut down on the launching pad--a dangerous procedure because of massive amounts of burning fuel. The launch of a third space shuttle, the Endeavor, also was postponed in June because, NASA said, Rocketdyne failed to correctly document one of the parts in the engine pump.

"In some people's eyes, Rocketdyne's credibility has been shaken," said Norman Parmet, chairman of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, a group formed by Congress in 1967 to provide an independent critique of NASA. In January the panel urged NASA to make several other long-term safety modifications to Rocketdyne's shuttle engines to reduce the chances of catastrophic failure.

Despite Rocketdyne's problems, NASA analysts say it's unlikely that Rocketdyne will lose the shuttle contract because few companies are capable of making engines as powerful as the 12-million horsepower motors used on the shuttle. Plus, Rocketdyne has been manufacturing and servicing shuttle engines for two decades, and until this year, it has had few problems.

But in an age of shrinking defense budgets and critics clamoring to cut expensive space programs, neither NASA nor Rocketdyne can afford to make such mistakes.

This year's shuttle launch errors are particularly glaring because last year, seven of the eight shuttle flights were launched on schedule, with the eighth delayed by just a day. So far this year NASA has launched just four shuttles, despite boarding astronauts and beginning the launch countdown 11 times. Some delays were caused by bad weather and problems unrelated to Rocketdyne, such as a flaw in the booster rocket made by Thiokol Corp.

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For NASA, each aborted launch costs between $600,000 and $1 million, adding to the program's $5 billion in costs. The agency's mission includes lofting and repairing vital satellites and conducting scientific experiments.

Sam Iacobellis, who is deputy chairman of Rockwell International, Rocketdyne's Seal Beach-based parent company, oversees the shuttle program. Iacobellis could not pinpoint why Rocketdyne's shuttle engines, after two decades of near-flawless performance, were causing repeated problems this year.

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