Report: Previous NASA job cuts had threatened shuttle safety

The General Accounting Office reported two years ago that workforce reductions and inadequate planning had left NASA facing safety challenges in its space shuttle program.

Investigators are likely to reexamine the report in the wake of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia over Texas Saturday.

According to the GAO report, issued in August 2000, NASA's in-house studies showed that downsizing in the 1990s had a negative effect on the space shuttle program. The downsizing-from about 3,000 to 1,800 full-time employees-represented a decrease of about one third of the shuttle workforce.

The cuts resulted in a workforce with more than twice as many workers over age 60 as under 30, a situation that makes it difficult "to hand off leadership roles to the next generation and achieve a higher flight rate to support assembly of the International Space Station," GAO said.

When employees are stretched too thin, it is harder for the agency to safely maintain the shuttle's planned flight rate. "The shuttle program has identified many key areas that are not sufficiently staffed by qualified workers, and the remaining workforce shows signs of overwork and fatigue," GAO said.

With many shuttle launches needed to build the International Space Station, NASA's attempts to revitalize its flagging workforce were more urgent, GAO officials concluded in the report.

In an effort to rejuvenate the program's workforce, NASA reversed its previous downsizing initiative in December 1999, took stock of its skills gaps, and began hiring new workers. Agency officials began using a five-part framework to assess their staffing needs. The framework, called "Human Capital: A Self-Assessment Checklist for Agency Leaders," was published by GAO in September 1999 and includes tips on strategic planning, organizational alignment, leadership, talent and performance culture.