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February 02, 2003
Stress a Problem for NASA Employees
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n before the loss of the space shuttle Columbia on Saturday, the NASA employees assigned to oversee shuttle maintenance were making increased visits to their employee-assistance programs and showing other signs of stress and fatigue as a result of downsizing, according to a congressional report.

A study conducted by the congressional General Accounting Office on Aug. 15, 2000, found shuttle maintenance employees showing "signs of overwork and fatigue" due to manpower shortages and increasing frequency of shuttle missions as the United States began launching portions of the international space station.

"Several internal NASA studies have shown that the shuttle program's workforce has been affected negatively by the downsizing," Allen Li, a GAO specialist, told Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in the report.

"The shuttle program has identified many areas that are not sufficiently staffed by qualified workers and the remaining workforce shows signs of overwork and fatigue ... forfeited leave, absences from training courses and stress-related employee assistance visits are all on the rise," Li said.

The staff has been cut by at least a third since 1995, which prompted space agency authorities to warn Congress two years ago that manpower reductions "pose significant shuttle program flight safety risks."

The Scripps Howard News Service reports that maintenance issues are expected to take center stage in the coming investigations into the accident. Columbia was the oldest in NASA's fleet of reusable orbiters.

But documents obtained from the GAO indicate that authorities have been concerned for several years about the quality of maintenance on shuttles.

NASA's staff overseeing shuttle maintenance shrank from about 3,000 people in 1995 to 1,800 workers in 1999. Much of the work performed on the shuttle was transferred from government workers to private contractors.

"However, the agency now recognizes that it has shortages of required personnel to perform in-house activities and maintain adequate oversight," Li said.

By last year, NASA felt it was making progress.

"NASA is making key investments in recruiting, training and retaining a dedicated and skilled workforce," Frederick Gregory, associate administrator for human spaceflight, told a House aeronautics subcommittee hearing nine months ago.

He said NASA had brought staffing of the shuttle workforce to 1,986 full-time people by last year and was making "significant progress" in correcting shortages in needed skills.

"The objective was to hire employees to support flight safety and the space shuttle upgrades program, including addressing critical skill shortages," Gregory said.

But Gregory warned that hiring of skilled people was delayed through "normal attrition" as the space agency's aging staff of technical experts retires.


Scripps Howard News Service article, via the Naples (Fla.) Daily News
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