In Fiscal Space Race, the Field Narrows


NASA watchers had mixed feelings about the merger between behemoth aerospace companies Boeing Co. and McDonnell Douglas Corp.

Several viewed the move as a virtual sellout of the space program to Boeing. "You have created a situation where Boeing now is the [manned] space program," said John Pike, space policy director for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. "You might as well take the American flag decal off the space shuttle and put a Boeing corporate [logo] in its place."

Other observers, however, didn't think the deal would make much of a difference. "I think NASA's a very small part of this story," said Louis Friedman, president of the Planetary Society in Pasadena. "This sort of consolidation has been going on for some time, and the companies that are emerging from this are probably healthier."


The merger leaves only Lockheed Martin Corp., which is designing and building the successor to the space shuttle, as serious competition for NASA dollars.

Alex Roland, a former space agency historian who is now chairman of Duke University's history department, called the merger "a troubling trend."

"The government looks increasingly to the bottom line and does not have the luxury of sustaining a healthy duplication of effort anymore," Roland said.

McDonnell Douglas' name in the space industry goes back to the earliest days of manned flight; it built the Mercury and Gemini space capsules. More recently, two Jet Propulsion Laboratory missions now on their way to Mars were boosted into space by McDonnell Douglas' Delta rockets.

Boeing is already responsible for building the space shuttle and the docking hardware that links the shuttle to the Russian Mir space station as a result of its acquisition of Rockwell International's space divisions earlier this year. It is also the prime contractor for the proposed international space station.

The concentration of space business in just two firms is a sharp departure from the state of affairs during the Apollo moon program and the early days of U.S. space missions. Then, NASA managed a dozen major aerospace contractors in order to foster technological diversity.

In contrast to the space shuttle and space station, however, the unmanned space program is unlikely to be affected much by the deal. "We don't have any high-profile projects with McDonnell Douglas," said Jet Propulsion Laboratory spokesman Franklin O'Donnell. "Even if we did, I don't think it would make an impact."

O'Donnell pointed out that the New Jersey facility that built the Mars Observer probe started out as a unit of RCA, was sold to GE and sold again to Lockheed Martin. "It would be hard to quantify any impact there might have been," said O'Donnell. Mars Observer has been lost in space since it broke contact with NASA controllers in 1993 as it was about to descend into Mars orbit.

"In unmanned spaceflight, it is still more competitive," Roland said. "For manned spaceflight, this new conglomerate is surely going to be the biggest guy on the block."

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