Privatizing space shuttle fleet called risky

Full privatization of the space shuttle fleet would increase safety risks and create a host of thorny legal issues for NASA, the former director of a NASA advisory panel told Congress on Thursday.

NASA is studying whether to turn all shuttle operations and infrastructure over to the private sector to cut costs and improve mission efficiency. The private United Space Alliance, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, already handles some shuttle operation chores, but its contract will expire on Sept. 30. By the end of summer, NASA plans to either pursue full privatization or a government-contractor partnership to operate the shuttle.

But handing over more shuttle duties to the private sector could increase safety risks, said Richard Blomberg, former director of the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, at a Thursday hearing of the House Science Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.

"If [the shuttle] were to be transitioned to a radically different operating posture without the traditional government/contractor checks and balances, I am convinced that risk would increase significantly at least for a time," he said in written testimony.

NASA would also likely have to indemnify the winning contractor from legal liability for flight operations as a condition of privatization, said Blomberg. If it did, the government would retain a significant financial risk for the shuttle that would likely force NASA to maintain some role in shuttle operations-the opposite of what it wants from privatization.

"The dilemma is that it is difficult to cultivate and maintain this government workforce when all operations have been turned over to the private sector," said Blomberg.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said the agency will handle issues like this later this summer when the privatization study is finished.

"When the business case is done, you bet. We're going to start thrashing through these types of questions. Right now I wouldn't want to speculate," he told reporters over lunch at NASA headquarters. O'Keefe did say he thinks the current NASA-industry shuttle partnership has generally succeeded.

He also addressed recent congressional criticism of his first budget and vision for space exploration. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, termed O'Keefe's plan for human space flight "timid and anemic" at a Wednesday hearing of the House appropriations subcommittee that covers NASA.

"He has a difference of opinion, and that's fine," said O'Keefe. "I'm thick-skinned."

NASA has scaled back some features of the International Space Station to rein in escalating costs, a move that has angered some members of Congress.

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