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NASA Makes Down-to-Earth Cuts : Budget: To cope with the latest shortfall and what lies beyond, the agency is scrutinizing every shuttle-related job to see where more money can be saved without jeopardizing flight safety.


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — In the old days, NASA only had to ask for what it wanted. Congress was only too willing to oblige.

Today, the space agency has a shrinking budget and new ways of doing business.

Here's the new NASA, looking to save a million here and a million there:

* Want to launch? Better settle for a weekday to avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars in weekend overtime pay.

* Weather lousy? Then call off liftoff before fueling and save $400,000 in tanking costs.

The coupon-clipping crowd has gotten hold of NASA's space shuttle program.

Shuttle funding dropped to $3.15 billion in the new fiscal year that began this month, $360 million less than the year before. NASA's total budget for the new fiscal year is $14.4 billion, down about $130 million.

NASA expected less for shuttle operations, but not that much less, considering all the previous cutbacks. The shuttle budget has shrunk nearly $1 billion since 1992, or 21%.

To cope with the latest shortfall and what lies beyond, NASA is scrutinizing every shuttle-related job to see where more money can be saved without jeopardizing flight safety.

Fifteen teams, comprising nearly 100 NASA employees, are assessing the jobs at Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center in Houston, Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The study is supposed to be completed by January.

"We've been coming down the last three years about 5% a year in operations in the shuttle, and we all felt like this is the time when we need to take a snapshot and see where we are," said Bryan O'Connor, shuttle director and a former shuttle commander.

"Have we gone too far in some areas? Are there some other areas where we can reduce even more?"

Just the thought of more cuts distresses the head of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, an independent group created by Congress.

More than 1,400 shuttle-processing jobs have been scrapped at Kennedy in the last three years, and numerous shuttle improvements have been deferred.

"They're right on the ragged edge now," said panel chairman Norman Parmet, a retired TWA executive. "As this thing squeezes to the point where they can't do what's necessary, the only answer is you have to cut down the schedule."

"Something's going to give," Parmet said.

Shuttle officials insist that safety will remain the No. 1 priority. They acknowledge, however, that they'll lose flexibility as positions and parts dwindle. And that means launch delays.

"These cuts are becoming more and more painful, and we have to delete more and more things that we wish we would not have to delete," said Brewster Shaw, a shuttle manager and former shuttle commander.

NASA hopes its work force study will minimize the pain.

O'Connor insists that "everything's fair game."

Well, not exactly.

None of the four space shuttles will be mothballed, and neither of the two launch pads will be closed, O'Connor said.

"You don't really save anything (by doing that)," he explained.

Besides, he said, NASA will need three shuttles and seven shuttle flights a year when it comes time to build the international space station. The fourth shuttle--Columbia, the oldest and heaviest--will be dedicated to non-station missions.

NASA will launch the first U.S. station component in December, 1997, said Jeremiah Pearson III, head of NASA's space flight office. He won't guarantee the launch dates of any shuttle missions before or after that, especially if the budget continues to shrivel.

Also sacrosanct are engine improvements and anything having to do with safety, Pearson said.

"If there's a safety issue, it will be funded," he promised.

Shuttle workers can expect less overtime, though, and managers will be asked to find additional ways to do the job "cheaper, faster and better"--the motto of NASA's administrator of 2 1/2 years, Daniel Goldin.

More job cuts are inevitable. NASA currently is replacing only about half of those who retire or quit.

So far, at least, the efficiencies seem to be working.

"People are doing a better job. There are fewer mistakes," O'Connor said.

This continual streamlining challenges "all our traditional ways of doing things," O'Connor said. For instance, NASA last spring called off Columbia's launch the day before because of dismal weather forecasts--a first in 13 years of space shuttle flight.

"We said, 'Hey, look, what's the point of this? We know it's going to be bad tomorrow,' " Pearson recalled. "But we've always done it this way. But we didn't (this time). We didn't tank. Four hundred thousand bucks."

Columbia soared the following day, a Friday, into a clear sky.

"We look to launch on Thursdays instead of Sundays," Pearson added. "Why? It costs less money."

Countdowns begin three days before launch, thus the penchant for Thursdays. Start the countdown on Monday and try to launch on Thursday or, failing that, on Friday--no weekend overtime. Or if Monday is a holiday, start the countdown on Tuesday and launch on Friday.

Five of the six space shuttle launches so far this year were on a Thursday or Friday; the exception was a twice-delayed flight. The year's last liftoff is scheduled for this Thursday.

In 1993, only two of seven shuttle launches fell on a Thursday or Friday.

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