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A Future in Doubt 

Lockheed Martin, a global manufacturing concern and one of the largest private employers in the metro area, this year marks its 30th anniversary of operations at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Michoud Assembly Facility in eastern New Orleans. Over the years, Michoud's employees have won praise for their role in building the massive, orange disposable fuel tanks used for NASA's space shuttle program. But in the wake of the space shuttle Columbia tragedy on Feb. 1, Michoud's future is now in doubt.

The breakup of the Columbia killed all seven crew members and scattered debris and human remains from California to Louisiana. Soon after the tragedy, NASA investigators focused attention on the Michoud-produced fuel tank. During Columbia's liftoff on Jan. 16, a chunk of insulation on the external tank broke off, striking the left side of the shuttle. Investigators are trying to determine whether the blow fatally damaged any of Columbia's 24,000 heat-resistant tiles.

Last week, NASA investigators converged on the 832-acre Michoud facility and impounded all of the records involved in the building of the tank. The probe closed several areas of the plant, although NASA officials have begun to suggest that the blow from the insulation was perhaps too light to have been the root cause of the Columbia's breakup. As of early last week, none of Michoud's 1,900 employees had been laid off, despite NASA's announcement of an immediate "slowdown" in the shuttle program.

We will not speculate on the outcome of the NASA investigation, which could take months. But experience shows that disasters of the magnitude of the Columbia tragedy often reveal a cluster of problems at the same time, rather than a single fault. Congress and several presidential administrations no doubt can share some blame for under-funding NASA and its missions to advance science, medicine and national defense. Already, observers have noted that NASA has suffered from substantial budget cuts -- 40 percent during the past decade. (More than 300 workers at Michoud were laid off last April because of budget cuts.) Several earlier warnings of safety problems and poor oversight of private contractors have resurfaced in the wake of the disaster.

Since 1973, when Martin Marietta Aerospace (forerunner of Lockheed Martin) came to New Orleans to design and produce external fuel tanks for NASA, 113 space shuttle missions have carried 639 astronauts into space. Seventeen years ago, the 25th shuttle mission likewise ended in failure when the seven-member crew of the Challenger died in an explosion shortly after launch. A presidential commission concluded that the Michoud-produced external tank did not contribute to the accident. Nevertheless, the shuttle program was shut down for nearly three years -- compounding a local economic malaise brought on by the oil bust. About a fifth of the plant's 5,000 workers lost their jobs almost immediately. Annual production dropped from a peak of 12 to the current six tanks a year.

Now, even if the Michoud facility escapes blame for the Columbia tragedy, employees at the plant must weather calls to scuttle the aging shuttle program in favor of a new generation of vehicles. Michoud also manufactures experimental space vehicles, but design and production of the external tank is "98 percent of what we do," says Marion LaNasa, communications director of Lockheed Martin.

The prospect of losing Michoud is daunting. "Local payrolls over the 30 years that we have been in New Orleans equal $3 billion," LaNasa says. During that period, the company has also spent an estimated $715 million with Louisiana suppliers and vendors. "Michoud is a significant part of our economy," says Timothy Ryan, dean of the University of New Orleans College of Business. "In terms of private sector manufacturing employers, they are second only to Avondale shipyards. As is typical for a defense contractor, they offer relatively high-paying jobs with good benefits. The kind of jobs we want more of."

Michoud's role in space exploration predates Lockheed Martin. In 1961, during the space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union, NASA took over the Michoud site for the design and assembly of large space vehicles. At the time, Michoud had been the site of a giant war materials manufacturing plant during the Korean Conflict and World War II. Throughout its recent history, one thing has remained constant at Michoud: it has played a pivotal role in our nation's efforts to remain a world leader in space exploration and technology. That role must be preserved -- if not expanded -- not just for the sake of the local economy, but for the nation's sake as well.

Lockheed Martin has existing contracts through 2008, and LaNasa says it's too early to predict the long-term impact of the Columbia tragedy. He correctly points out that the current focus is determining what caused the accident -- and fixing the problem. We join the nation in mourning the loss of our heroic astronauts, and as the Columbia investigation unfolds we hope NASA will focus on improving the program and not scuttling it. Michoud's future and ours are one and the same.

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