6 December 2005
Union tells NASA to halt work on Pluto spacecraft
Boeing workers fret about safety

By Todd Halvorson
Florida Today


New Horizons spacecraft. The spacecraft's most prominent design feature is a nearly 7-foot dish antenna, through which it would communicate with Earth from as far as 4.7 billion miles away. Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab image


Protecting the public: Probe powered with plutonium - Flash

Mission to Pluto


The union representing striking Boeing machinists asked NASA on Monday to halt work on a plutonium-powered spacecraft, claiming it is irresponsible to allow five replacement workers to complete the job.

NASA said the managers and supervisors have the skills needed to complete the work safely, and the agency intends to press ahead with plans to launch its Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft next month.

The replacement workers "are certified, have extensive previous experience and have met the safety criteria," NASA launch services manager Steve Francois said. "No exceptions to either safety or quality assurance have been made and none are planned."

The New Horizons mission must be launched during a time-critical 35-day window that opens Jan. 11. A delay past Feb. 14 would force NASA to postpone the launch until early 2007, the next time the planets are aligned properly for the trip.

The mission is one of four that Delta rocket machinists were working on before they went on strike Nov. 2. Work on the other missions ceased then.

The grounded missions include launch of an advanced weather satellite for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

On hold at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California are a NASA atmospheric science mission and a classified flight for the National Reconnaissance Office.

"If it's not safe to work on all the other projects with replacement workers, it's irresponsible to continue with New Horizons," said Robert Wood, a spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

NASA officials noted that only five replacement workers are needed to finish the job that strikers otherwise would be doing on the New Horizons mission. More than 200 people are required to finish work on the Delta rockets that were being readied for the other launches.

"That's the difference," Kennedy Space Center spokesman George Diller said.

The union represents 288 local strikers, including the five involved in the third stage of the Horizons mission. In total, the union represents 1,500 workers who went out on strike in Florida, California and Alabama. Most work on the Boeing Delta rocket program.

The New Horizons craft is set for launch on a Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 rocket at Cape Canaveral. The probe is to be outfitted with a Boeing upper-stage rocket motor later this week.

At issue are plans to use replacement workers to mate the upper-stage motor with the spacecraft. The union claims the managers and supervisors are not properly trained and certified to perform the work.

"They are cutting corners," Wood said. "This is a special spacecraft. It's one of a kind. With this mission, you want your first-stringers on the job."

NASA said a crane to be used on the job would be operated by fully trained and certified workers from Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which built the spacecraft. Replacement workers will make the necessary mechanical and electrical connections.

Boeing says the managers and supervisors have an average of 16 years of experience on the Delta rocket program, including an average of nine years doing hands-on work with similar upper-stage motors.

Contact Halvorson at 639-0576 or thalvorson@flatoday.net

See also: other articles on New Horizons

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