Boeing Engineers Lament Company's Move To Houston
When Boeing decided to move 1100 engineers from its facility at
Huntington Beach (CA) to Houston (TX), a move designed to cut
costs, a lot of Huntington Beach engineers were less than thrilled.
In fact, fewer than 20% of them opted to relocate to the new
facility. As a result, the Columbia Accident Investigation
Board is now looking into whether a lack of experience in the
shuttle's thermal assessment team contributed to the destruction of
Columbia on February 1st (ANN: "STS-107: Boeing Ignored Shuttle
Warnings" -- March 10, 2003).
Columbia's January 16th launch marked the first time
that the engineers in Texas had actual responsibility for providing
NASA with technical help. After it appeared that a sizeable chunk
of insulating foam broak away from the shuttle's external fuel tank
and impacted the leading edge of the left wing, NASA asked the
rookies their professional opinion: Had the wing been damaged by
the debris? The engineering team responded -- in writing -- that
the shuttle was safe to land.
The Los Angeles Times quotes Maj. Gen. John Barry, a
member of the board, as saying a broad range of questions is being
asked about the capability and training of the Boeing engineers who
advised NASA during the Columbia mission. The board has
asked Boeing and NASA to produce all the documents involved in the
relocation. "The reason we are looking at Huntington Beach and
Palmdale is to see if there were any factors involved there that
may have contributed to this mishap," Barry said. "We have a lot
more work to do."
The Huntington Beach engineers were among the first
to raise the possibility of a bad diagnosis on the wing damage
conducted by the Texas engineering team. Today, six months later,
they haven't toned down their angst toward Boeing for trying to
force the new team to perform on its own during the STS-107
mission. "The feeling is we had better technical expertise here,
particularly in the area of the shuttle's thermal protection
system," said one veteran space shuttle engineer, who asked that
his name not be used. "But they ignored us. It's a pretty universal
feeling among the California employees."
But NASA officials didn't seem to have any problems with the
Boeing move. When NASA shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore was
questioned about the reasons for Boeing's move at an accident board
hearing March 6, he called the transition "very successful."
"We have very high confidence in the technical leadership we
were able to capture," Dittemore said.
But there are other factors for the CAIB to consider, the least
of which is politics. Did NASA encourage the Boeing move to put
more of the space program in President Bush's home state? The CAIB
report is due out before the end of next month.