Steady cuts in NASA's space shuttle oversight and inspections program since 1983 have hurt quality control, according to several NASA officials and contract company employees.
In interviews this week, the officials and workers complained also that they faced an ever-increasing workload, occasionally leading to accidents and injuries, under NASA's ambitious program to launch 15 shuttles this year.
"When we'd say, 'You're pushing too fast, you're pushing too fast,' the higher-ups would say, 'No, we're not, everything is going smoothly,' " Bob Huddleston, a quality assurance specialist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration since 1962, said Tuesday.
Pushed Too Fast
"I think we tried to push the shuttle into the operational phase so fast that the quality control suffered," said Huddleston, who reviews and investigates inspection reports from the shuttle's major contractors.
"People were working a couple of months sometimes without a day off, 10 and 12 hours a day, and that has to take an effect," he added. "That's where quality suffers."
Huddleston said he is the only one left of the five ranking NASA inspectors who used to share his oversight and auditing role. He said NASA now employs only about 90 quality control inspectors and has plans to cut the number further.
There is no evidence that the cuts in NASA inspections personnel or the alleged overwork caused the explosion of Challenger 73 seconds after launching on the morning of Jan. 28, killing all seven crew members.
Jim Mizell a NASA spokesman, said NASA sharply reduced its inspections because it now has a prime contractor, Lockheed, to oversee inspections of work done by subcontractors. Extensive inspections are no longer necessary because the work has become more routine, he said.
Previously, Mizell said, there were four to six prime contractors all responsible to NASA, and the agency inspectors reviewed all their work. "It was very expensive," he said.
Overall, Mizell said, the change has been a "plus."
Another NASA spokesman, who asked not to be identified, said that NASA investigators will examine the cuts in NASA's daily oversight operations as they seek to determine the causes of the shuttle disaster.
However, the official defended the cuts as a more efficient use of personnel. In the past, NASA inspectors often worked one-on-one with company inspectors to double-check every procedure as the shuttle was prepared for launching.
"It just wasn't practical," the official said. "What good does it do to have one guy do the job and have two guys watch?"
NASA began reducing its oversight after a team of companies led by Lockheed Space Operations Co. won a bidding war against the incumbent contractors, led by Rockwell International Corp., to become NASA's prime contractor for shuttle ground operations in September, 1983.
The contract, initially let for $1.2 billion over three years, can be extended up to 15 years at an expected cost of more than $6 billion. Under the contract, NASA launched five shuttles in 1984, nine in 1985 and had scheduled 15 missions this year.
John D. Williams, a Lockheed spokesman here, said the company employs more than 400 inspectors to check and report on virtually every phase of shuttle preparation and assembly. He said the inspectors rely on thick NASA-approved quality planning requirement documents for each step and are back-stopped by NASA inspectors.
"I would say we really think we're doing an excellent job with the shuttle contract in all phases of the program," Williams said Tuesday.
Lockheed employs about 5,000 of the 14,500 workers in the shuttle program here. The company is responsible for operations, maintenance, testing, inspecting and repairing the shuttles, as well as the main fuel tank, solid rocket boosters and ground support equipment.
Morton Thiokol, a Utah-based Lockheed subcontractor that loads the fuel in the solid rocket boosters, employs about 400 workers, including 60 inspectors. Company spokeswoman Juva Stirling said the company's records had been impounded by NASA and she could not answer questions regarding safety. Rick Whitmyre, a spokesman for United Technologies Corp., the parent company to USBI-Booster Production Co., which also works on the solid rocket boosters, referred all inquiries to NASA.
Plume of Flame
NASA investigators have identified a mysterious plume of flame from an apparent rupture in one of Challenger's solid rocket boosters as a possible cause for last week's disaster.
NASA officials said the goal in selecting a single prime contractor was to consolidate and streamline ground operations and to reduce program costs by 20%.
Arthur Johnson, quality control inspector for Morton Thiokol, who has worked at the Kennedy Space Center since 1955, said the decline in number and in the thoroughness of inspections in the booster program coincided with NASA's diminishing day-to-day role in production and assembly work.
And, as the shuttle flights have become more routine, he said, there has been a decline--by as much as 30%--in the number and kinds of inspections. "A lot of people in quality control don't think that's a healthy idea. That's my opinion," Johnson said. "When I worked on the Apollo program, everything was checked, double-checked and rechecked."
Safety problems have emerged repeatedly. A NASA investigation completed last Dec. 13 blamed Lockheed for safety violations and personnel problems in the management of the solid-rocket assembly facility.
The investigation focused on a Nov. 8 accident in which workers violated NASA procedures by using an overhead crane to remove a heavy shipping ring on a solid fuel booster rocket. NASA concluded that the workers were inexperienced and unmotivated and had used faulty equipment.
Another accident occurred last March, when a large bucket used to hoist workers dropped on the space shuttle Discovery in the massive vehicle assembly building, causing $200,000 in damage and injuring a technician.
According to the NASA report, the accident delayed the shuttle program at least two weeks. The report noted that the bucket had been reported inoperative four days earlier but was still being used because technicians had ignored warning tags.
In another case, William T. Gooden, a 63-year-old quality control supervisor, needed medical care after suffering inflamed arteries in his right leg on Sept. 22, 1984, after he was "confined to work station 9 1/2 hours without relief or break," according to Florida workers' compensation records in Tallahassee.
State records show that Gooden was monitoring quality control tests of the orbiter at the time. Although no launching was scheduled, "the day in question was . . . a very busy day and many more jobs were in work than had been previously scheduled," Gooden's supervisor wrote on the report. In a telephone interview, he refused to elaborate.
But other employees did question the cuts in NASA's oversight and inspections program and complained about the heavy workload.
"We have less government control in the space program for safety and quality control now than we did with previous space programs," said Jack Fortier, 55, an inspector for the solid rocket booster equipment manufactured by Morton Thiokol. "The level of checking by NASA was much stronger in the past in almost every phase of the operation."
"You used to have two or three people for every job. Now, we seem to do more work with less people," said Richard M. Anderson, 64, an electrician at Lockheed.
'Lot of Overtime'
"In the past year, there's been a lot of overtime because they want more flights per year," said Wayne H. Carringer, 43, a Lockheed cargo bay technician. "They're trying to get more work for the schedule."
Gerald M. Hall, 60, a test conductor for Lockheed, also noted the decrease in NASA inspections since 1983.
"The NASA employees as overseers became less and less as time went by," he said. "Many were retiring or moving to Washington."
Hall added, however, that "the decrease in government oversight over time had very little impact" on testing and safety operations.
"There's room for improvement, and I'm sure that's what will happen," Hall said.
Times Staff Writers Maura Dolan, Josh Getlin, Kim Murphy and David Treadwell contributed to this story.