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NASA Official Says Shuttle Contractor Work Satisfactory With PM-Shuttle-Investigation Bjt

February 12, 1986

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ NASA is satisfied with quality-control and safety procedures of private contractors who process space shuttles for launch, a top space agency official said in discounting reports of sloppy performance.

Lockheed Space Operations Co., the prime processing contractor, is generally performing satisfactorily, Tom Utsman, deputy director of the Kennedy Space Center, said Tuesday. ″They’ve done an excellent job in improving their operation ... there’s always room for improvement.″

A series of 1985 shuttle processing accidents, personnel problems and low- performance ratings were attributed to careless management by Lockheed and a subcontractor, Morton-Thiokol Inc., which manufactures and assembles the solid rocket boosters that help power the shuttle into space.

Lockheed won the $2 billion, 6-year shuttle processing contract in 1983.

The boosters used on Challenger received the usual ″tender loving care,″ because anything other than strict adherence to requirements would have been immediately evident to NASA inspectors, Utsman told reporters.

The right booster is suspected of having ruptured shortly after Challenger’s liftoff Jan. 28, causing the fiery explosion which destroyed the spacecraft and killed its seven-member crew.

Utsman, who was director of shuttle management and operations until August, would not speculate on possible causes, but he defended testing, safety and quality-control procedures at Kennedy Space Center.

Among the possible blast causes being examined is damage or improper handling of the rockets at the vehicle assembly building, while the shuttle was transferred to the launch site on its mobile platform, or at the pad itself.

The booster segments are closely inspected during and after assembly, Utsman said, and the joints are pressure-checked to ensure that their seals and surfaces are not damaged.

The assembly system has not changed since the first shuttle, he said. ″We do verify all the critical steps in the process of stacking... We do look at it continually as part of an overall review.″

As to concerns about possible deterioration of the seals between the booster segments, Utsman said he didn’t know of any changes in their handling. Asked whether space center employers were overworked, he said: ″I don’t feel there was a fatigue factor with our work out here... We’re not running a sweat factory.″

Challenger was the first shuttle to be launched from pad 39B, which was used during the Apollo program and then extensively modified. The previous 24 shuttle missions were launched from pad 39A.

Jesse Moore, NASA’s associate administrator of manned space flight, on Tuesday told the presidential commission investigating the disaster that 39B was being closely examined.

Another area of concern was Challenger’s weight. The liftoff weight of 4,529,122 pounds for orbiter, external tank and rocket boosters was reported by NASA as the heaviest of any shuttle mission.

Meanwhile, the underwater search for the right booster by the NASA ship Independence was temporarily suspended Tuesday because strong currents made the use of a remote-controlled scanning submersible impossible. Officials said the vessel would have to be outfitted with another device.

Two NASA ships were making sonar maps of the ocean bottom, and the Navy salvage ship Preserver was sending divers down to look at a ″high-confiden ce target″ believed to be the upper-stage motors for a communications satellite carried in Challenger’s cargo bay.

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