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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Panel Warns NASA on Labor Loss

WASHINGTON -- The space agency has managed to launch space shuttles safely with a reduced work force, but critical shortages of skilled engineers and little past efforts to replace them could pose increased safety problems as the flight rate increases in coming years, an advisory panel said Thursday.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has experienced a steady erosion of critical skills and valuable experience at its flight centers in recent years; older employees retired or took buy-outs to cut agency costs and were not replaced because of hiring freezes, the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel said Thursday in its annual report.

"The safety consciousness of the NASA and contractor work forces, from hands-on labor to top management, continues high," said the nine-member committee and its consultants.

"Nevertheless, work-force issues remain among the most serious safety concerns of the panel. Cutbacks and reorganizations over the past several years have resulted in problems related to work-force size, critical skills and the extent of on-the-job experience," the committee said.

There were only three shuttle flights last year because the four-orbiter fleet was grounded while technicians inspected and repaired damaged electrical wiring, and because of delays in getting critical parts ready to attach to the International Space Station.

The shuttle Endeavour and a crew of six is scheduled to lift off Friday at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time for the first flight of the year, an 11-day mission to map the Earth in detail with radar. The launch, delayed from last week to replace a malfunctioning computer, is to be one of up to eight that the space agency hopes to fly this year as construction of the space station accelerates.

The safety panel said the unusually low shuttle flight rate last year allowed the reduced work forces of the space agency and its contractors to keep up with processing and maintenance of the spacecraft, including the added work on the wiring.

But with flight rates rising to eight annually, and occasionally going as high as 12, "this may no longer be the case," the panel said.

In addition to increasing stress and workload levels, the panel said, hiring practices that have reduced the space agency's work force to 17,500 from 25,000 in the last half-dozen years have eroded expertise in critical areas, particularly at agency centers that deal with piloted space flights, like the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The report said there was a lack of younger people at entry-level positions, particularly as scientists and engineers, who would become future leaders and managers, as well as insufficient training to fill the gaps in skill caused by the reduction of employees and a lessened capacity to handle the higher rates of flight for a sustained period.

Daniel Goldin, the NASA administrator, said the agency was requesting more money for both shuttle safety improvements and hiring a substantial number of new employees. Goldin said the agency, with congressional approval, planned to hire about 1,850 people over the next two years. This would result in a net gain of almost 550 employees, after expected attrition from retirements and other personnel losses, he said.