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Some Fear NASA Invites New Shuttle Disaster : Space: Budget cuts, problems with parts have some analysts worried. The agency insists it is not lax on safety and has not compromised standards.

March 20, 1994|MARCIA DUNN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA budget cuts and a string of problems with crucial space shuttle parts--including the engines and booster rockets--have raised fears of another Challenger disaster.

In the last few months, NASA has investigated one serious shuttle issue after another: booster pressure spikes, glued engine pumps, flawed engine welds.

Daniel Mulville, director of NASA's engineering and quality management division, said the problems are unrelated and in no way suggest "we have been lax in our standards or compromise our standards."

But Alex Roland, a former NASA historian who teaches at Duke University, said he's worried and has been for years.

"They're getting a little more comfortable, perhaps too comfortable, and that's what happened with Challenger," Roland said.

John Pike, head of the Federation of American Scientists' space policy project, also said he fears another accident--perhaps sooner rather than later.

Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986, after combustible gas leaked from an O-ring joint on the right solid rocket booster. All seven people aboard, including a high school teacher, were killed.

It was NASA's 25th shuttle flight. Columbia's current two-week research mission, which ended Friday, is No. 61.

NASA estimates the odds of a catastrophic failure during the shuttle's 8 1/2-minute climb to orbit--considered the most dangerous part of the flight--at 1 in 75.

But those estimates don't factor in recent cuts that have trimmed NASA's budget by hundreds of millions of dollars and forced the agency to delay some safety improvements.

"The string of problems we've seen not only in the shuttle program, but with the Hubble, the Mars Observer, is from squeezing programs across the line and making them fit into an inadequate budget," Roland said.

The Hubble Telescope was launched with a deformed mirror that required repairs by spacewalking astronauts. The Mars Observer vanished last summer as it neared Mars; program managers were criticized for design flaws and poor operating procedures.

NASA's proposed budget for the next fiscal year contains $3.3 billion for the shuttle program, down from $3.5 billion this year, which was down from $3.9 billion last year.

"This is it. We can't get any closer to the bone," NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin warned when the proposed budget was presented to Congress last month.

The head of NASA's space flight program, Jeremiah Pearson III, insists that safety is, and will remain, paramount. He wants to fly at least six shuttle missions a year; anything less wouldn't save much money, he said, and might cause proficiency to drop. The current plan calls for eight flights a year.

To save money, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has eliminated shuttle work deemed redundant, deferred safety improvements and, since 1988, reduced the production of main engines from five a year to two. Each engine costs more than $40 million.

"The real challenge for NASA is to cut the budget while maintaining safety," Columbia's commander, John Casper, said from space during a news conference last Sunday.

"There probably is a line out there. I'm not aware of where that line is, but I know the program managers for the shuttle program are, and I know that they won't let us go below that line and they will not permit unsafe shuttle operations," Casper told reporters.

Problems continue to surface, however, particularly in the components most critical to shuttle safety--the three engines and two booster rockets that propel the shuttle and its crew into orbit.

The latest problem involves one of the nearly 400 welds in the high-pressure hydrogen fuel pump of the main engine--Weld 51. An anonymous report to NASA's Safety Reporting System late last year said some of the welds were misaligned and raised concern about the manufacturing process.

Pumps with seriously misaligned welds have been barred from flight until a NASA materials review board can decide whether to reduce the number of times the parts should fly.

NASA had hoped to replace the high-pressure hydrogen fuel pumps with pumps that have no welds, but budget cuts delayed those plans.

"The pumps we are flying are pumps that were designed in the early '70s," said NASA's engine chief, Otto Goetz. "The technology is 20 years old and in the meantime the country has developed a lot of new things."

A potentially more serious problem was the unauthorized use of a super-strength glue, for at least five or six years, to secure loose platings in the low-pressure oxidizer turbopumps.

The glue is incompatible with liquid oxygen; in other words, it could ignite.

"It's basic human error," Goetz said. "The technicians should have never used it, and all the instructions said clearly, 'Don't use anything that is not (liquid oxygen) compatible.' "

But Goetz said that even if the glue had caught fire, the results would have been inconsequential because of the small amounts of glue used.

As for the rocket boosters, reviews of pressure surges concluded in January that the increases were within safety limits. The spikes, or jumps in pressure inside the boosters, first were detected during a 1993 launch of Endeavour.

"Even in the best of times, this is an extraordinarily complex technical challenge and there are no safety guarantees," said Steven Aftergood, senior research analyst for the Federation of American Scientists.

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