Space industry executives have been shaken by the U.S. Defense Department’s rare move to strip a contractor of satellite work — especially the classified Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) program.

Publicly, defense contractor executives say it is up to the customer to decide who does what work. With space satellite program costs ballooning and deadlines passing by without completed programs, they add, it is no wonder the government is on the offensive.

But privately, company officials say if the Pentagon was willing to relieve Boeing of work on FIA, a black program meant to give the military an unparalleled view and images of the planet, then no program is sacred.

Late last year, Pentagon officials decided to shift some of FIA’s space-related work from Boeing to Lockheed Martin, contractors and Defense Department officials confirmed. FIA’s estimated cost, originally $6 billion, had soared above $10 billion, requiring a report to Congress under the Nunn-McCurdy financial reporting law.

“Talking about a black program like that, acknowledging those types of problems, is usually something that’s not done,” said Loren Thompson, a Lexington Institute analyst.

Thompson and Lexington released a report in late 2005 that said FIA is not alone among Pentagon space programs with rising costs and slowing schedules.

In 2005 congressional hearings, lawmakers made it clear they wanted to rein in costs. Air Force officials said they recognize the need to do a better job.

“What we have got to get back to is, we have a higher level of technical maturity before we launch,” Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne told reporters in December. “We also seem to have spent ourselves trying to perfect these ill-designed products when we could have stopped and boxed them up and actually launched them, and had them available and learned something and then gone on.”

In his report, Thompson attaches blame to contractors, federal agencies and Congress.

Those sentiments were echoed by Pete Worden, a retired Air Force brigadier general and an astronomy professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson .

In a report circulated throughout the Air Force last fall for war-game planning, Worden, like Thompson, said the government is asking too much of the satellites, making them too expensive, prolonging development and formulating technically infeasible requirements.

But with so much at stake in terms of dollars and national defense, Thompson and Worden say it is imperative that satellite and other space programs be fixed.

“Many of the most destructive influences at work in the sector result from government policies and practices that could be changed,” Thompson wrote. “These influences include unrealistic cost estimates, excessive performance requirements, unduly optimistic program schedules, unprofessional management practices, and high turnover of essential personnel.

“Political and budgetary circumstances today do not favor an early recovery of the sector’s lost capabilities,” he added.

Thompson’s advice: Give space programs some breathing room.

“Congress needs to contain its impatience,” he wrote, “and give reforms enough time to demonstrate whether they are working.”

George Muellner, president of advanced systems for Boeing Integrated Defense Systems who oversaw the company’s Air Force programs, would not directly address FIA. But at the Air Force Association conference Feb. 2, the executive said, “The patience argument is a good one.”

He pointed out there are quite a few high-profile, technology-driven space programs trying to be completed now. “Let them play out,” he said. “Have confidence.”

In a Jan. 13 interview, Muellner said what Pentagon space acquisition needs is a balance of oversight and insight.

“Program management is really a team sport,” he said. “There are an awful lot of folks who participate in the success of it, and that means when the team fails, there are an awful lot of people who contribute to the failure.”