Payloads Grounded Indefinitely as Boeing Strike Drags On

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A strike by Boeing machinists that began Nov. 2 has forced one U.S. government launch to be scrapped until early next year, put two other launches on indefinite hold and sparked a war of words over a fourth launch that is proceeding with Boeing union and non union launch teams.

As the strike of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) entered its third week, Boeing said the launch of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES-N meteorological satellite aboard a Boeing Delta 4 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., has been postponed until sometime early in 2006. “The launch of GOES-N will not proceed until the strike comes to an end,” said Robert Villanueva , a spokesman for Boeing Integrated Defense Systems of St. Louis.

Two other launches being prepared at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., are on hold. A Delta 4 launch of a classified U.S. National Reconnaissance Office satellite remains possible this year, although the satellite has been taken off the launch vehicle, Villanueva said.

However, Rick Oborn, a spokesman for the National Reconnaissance Office, said that the agency does not expect the launch to take place before early 2006.

A NASA launch aboard a Boeing Delta 2 rocket carrying U.S. and French Earth observation satellites faces the same uncertainty. The satellites are being kept in a nearby facility and it is not clear whether a 2005 launch is possible.

The two satellites — NASA’s Cloudsat and the Calipso satellite built for the French space agency, CNES — are part of the five-satellite A-Train system whose first three satellites already are in orbit.

CNES officials said they had returned their Calipso team to France as it became clear that no firm launch date could be fixed.

“We are still deciding whether to proceed with these two launches,” Villanueva said.

The scheduled Jan. 11 launch of a Lockheed Martin Atlas 5 rocket carrying NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons satellite is proceeding as scheduled despite the strike, notwithstanding the fact that Boeing is involved as supplier of the rocket’s upper stage.

Because of Boeing’s relatively modest role in the Atlas 5 launch, only about 50 Boeing personnel are at Cape Canaveral preparing the mission . Villanueva said several of them are IAM union workers who have chosen to cross the picket lines established daily since the strike began.

Boeing also has hired non union technicians to replace strikers for the launch, and it is this development that resulted in a Nov. 17 IAM statement that accused Boeing of “circumventing safety regulations in an attempt to meet launch deadlines” for the nuclear-powered New Horizons probe .

IAM specifically alleged that Boeing personnel have violated safety procedures and were issued two Corrective Action Reports (CARs) by U.S. Air Force Cape Canaveral range-safety personnel. A third violation, the union said, could shut down the New Horizons launch campaign.

IAM spokesman Bob Wood said in a Nov. 17 interview that one of the two warnings followed the removal by the Boeing team of a ground strap used to protect the satellite from electrical discharge.

“These warnings are issued maybe one or two times a year,” Wood said. “Boeing got two in a very short time.”

Villanueva flatly denied that the Air Force had issued any CARs related to the New Horizons launch or to Boeing’s work on it.

“The union has put out harsh and false statements,” Villanueva said. “CARs are not issued by range safety officials but at the Pentagon level. Patrick Air Force Base [on behalf of] Cape Canaveral does not issue them. They are higher-level administrative reports and they are issued by the Air Force for really major issues. We have not been issued any.”

To further muddle the situation, the Air Force said both sides have it wrong.

Maj. Regina Winchester, a spokeswoman for the Air Force at the Pentagon, said CARs are issued at the operational level — in this case the 45th Space Wing — not the Pentagon. Lt. Col. Mike Rein, a spokesman for the 45th Space Wing, which manages operations at Cape Canaveral, said the wing did not issue any CARs related to the New Horizon’s launch.

Michelle Lyle, spokeswoman for International Launch Services of McLean, Va., which markets the Atlas 5 rocket for Lockheed Martin, said Nov. 17 the company is unaware of any serious safety issues related to New Horizons. She said a launch dress rehearsal is scheduled for early December in preparation for a Jan. 11 liftoff.

Wood said IAM “does not make statements like this lightly. They are serious and we stand by them.”

NASA has a 35-day window to take advantage of a favorable planetary alignment for launching a mission to Pluto. NASA spokeswoman Erica Hupp on Nov. 18 issued a statement saying the agency “is more than satisfied” with the safety procedures being followed for the New Horizons launch.

Staff Writer Jeremy Singer contributed to this report from Washington.

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