NASA pulls plug on new launch system

To gain control over its finances, NASA last week scuttled a new launch control system for the space shuttle that had run over budget and fallen behind schedule.

A recent assessment of the Checkout and Launch Control System, which the space agency originally estimated would cost $206 million to field, estimated that costs would swell to between $488 million and $533 million by the time the project was completed.

'The administration is looking across the board at projects,' said Bruce Buckingham, news chief of the Kennedy Space Center, Fla. 'If we are not going to realize any cost savings or enhancements, they are going to be cancelled. That is just good management.'

Administrator Sean O'Keefe, named to head NASA last November, had criticized the space agency's budget overruns when he was deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

The agency has spent $273 million on the program since it began in 1997, Buckingham said.

CLCS would have replaced the 25-year-old Launch Processing System, now used to control shuttle launches and reassume control of spacecraft after landing. NASA spokesman Duane Brown said the agency has upgraded LPS so that it can continue to control launches.

The original target date to complete CLCS was December 2000, Buckingham said. But the recent review concluded that CLCS wouldn't be ready until July 2005.

NASA began the launch system upgrade to cut staff and operating costs in half. 'Because of the cost overrun, we were not going to be saving the money,' Buckingham said.

About 100 NASA employees working on the CLCS project will be reassigned to other agency work.

The program relies on two main contractors, Lockheed Martin Corp. and United Space Alliance, which between them have about 400 workers assigned to the project. Alliance spokeswoman Kari Fluegal said it is too soon to tell if any of the contract employees will be discharged.

Asked about the project's problems, Fluegal said: 'CLCS is a very, very complex system, unlike anything that was ever developed before. The shuttle is unique, the launch center is unique. The project was technically very challenging, and there were things that were unforeseen that had to be addressed.'

NASA estimated it would spend $10 million to close down the CLCS project over the next 60 days.

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