WASHINGTON — The loss of seasoned engineers and technicians in the U.S. space shuttle program threatens the safety of future missions as NASA prepares to double its annual number of launches to build the international space station, a government report said.
The General Accounting Office cited internal National Aeronautics and Space Administration documents showing "work force reductions are jeopardizing NASA's ability to safely support the shuttle's planned flight rate."
The report, requested by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said NASA's full-time work force for the shuttle shrank last year to 1,800 from about 3,000 in 1995.
"NASA has concluded that the shuttle program's work force is showing signs of overwork and fatigue as a result of the downsizing," the report said.
In the next two years, almost 20 shuttle flights will be needed to assemble the space station. NASA has flown four missions in each of the last two fiscal years and two so far this fiscal year.
Studies of five unmanned launch vehicle failures from August 1998 to May 1999 cited work force concerns similar to those experienced by the shuttle program, NASA said.
The GAO assembled a composite view of the shuttle program's work force that showed twice as many workers over 60 years of age than under 30. The number of workers nearing retirement could jeopardize the program's ability to transfer leadership roles to the next generation, the GAO said.
NASA plans to spend as much as $1.6 billion by 2005 for a wide range of safety improvements.