The weather was perfect at Cape Canaveral on Aug. 12 when the space shuttle Discovery's engines roared to life, only to be halted by a computer three seconds from liftoff.
For NASA, it was another embarrassing setback. But when the agency traced the shutdown to a faulty fuel sensor in one of Discovery's engines, the finger was pointed at Rocketdyne.
It wasn't the first time. The Canoga Park unit of Rockwell International makes the shuttle's main engines, which this year have caused two last-minute aborted launches. They've also caused at least two more launch delays involving the Columbia and Endeavour space shuttles.
Rocketdyne's lapses have ranged from minor to potentially catastrophic, such as a missing part that could cause a shuttle engine to lose thrust. The result: The company's shuttle operations have come under unprecedented scrutiny as NASA and company officials struggle to turn around the problem-plagued operation.
Officials of Seal Beach-based Rockwell International acknowledge the recent shuttle problems and say they are working hard to rectify them. "It's not as bad as it looks," a Rocketdyne spokesman insisted. Indeed, until this year Rocketdyne had made shuttle engines for two decades virtually problem-free.
Nevertheless, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin said, "The fact of the matter is, we did have quality problems at Rocketdyne."
To remedy them, NASA launched an extraordinary inspection of the shuttle engines and Rocketdyne's work. In May, a dozen NASA experts arrived in Canoga Park for a monthlong review of Rocketdyne's operations.
They found discrepancies between NASA's specifications and designs and Rocketdyne's blueprints. Also, in some cases Rocketdyne technicians weren't following their own manuals, the reviewers said.
"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 probe.
Littles said his team will revisit Rocketdyne's Canoga Park plant soon to make sure 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 a piece was discovered missing from a turbine assembly in February. Also discovered were a mislabeled engine part and a piece with the wrong dimensions on an engine pump.
These problems forced the space agency to postpone the Columbia shuttle launch by a month until March 22, when the Columbia flight was halted three seconds before liftoff because a valve in one of the shuttle's three main engines picked up a speck of debris and failed to close.
Launches are rarely stopped at the last second. Doing so is dangerous because of huge amounts of burning fuel. The launch of a third space shuttle, the Endeavour, was also 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 watchers said it is unlikely that Rocketdyne will lose the shuttle contract, because few companies can make engines as powerful as the 12-million-horsepower motors used on the shuttle. And the problems are all relatively recent.
But in an age of shrinking defense budgets, neither NASA nor Rocketdyne can afford to make such mistakes. This year's shuttle woes are particularly glaring because last year, seven of eight shuttle flights were on schedule, with the eighth delayed just a day. This year, NASA has launched just four shuttles, despite beginning the launch countdown 11 times. Some delays were unrelated to Rocketdyne.
For NASA, each aborted launch costs $600,000 to $1 million, adding to the program's $5 billion in annual costs. The agency's mission includes lofting and repairing satellites and conducting experiments.
Sam Iacobellis, deputy chairman of Rockwell International, oversees the shuttle program. He could not pinpoint why Rocketdyne's shuttle engines were causing repeated problems this year.
Iacobellis said Rocketdyne conducted its own investigation before NASA's team arrived and shut down manufacturing for several weeks as Rocketdyne's workers went through every detail of production. "We found over 99.9% of the procedures were correct and consistent," he said.
But Iacobellis admitted that Rocketdyne had made some mistakes and said the company's inspection reached some of the same findings as NASA's. So Rocketdyne is spelling out its work procedures in detail and enhancing training, he said. The company also disciplined about 10 employees.