USA’s Exit Sends NASA in Search of New Steward for Shuttle Equipment

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WASHINGTON — Amid signs space shuttle operator United Space Alliance (USA) may not be around to do the job, NASA is seeking an industry steward for millions of dollars worth of high-tech support equipment housed in the Shuttle Logistics Depot, a sprawling facility just a short drive from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The facility itself, owned by a private landlord, would not be part of the deal. The 15,000-square-meter building that houses the machine shops and specialty labs previously used to keep the shuttle flying is currently leased by USA. The equipment itself, which was used to crank out and refurbish space shuttle parts, is owned by the space shuttle program office at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

USA, the Houston-based Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture created in 1995 to maintain and operate the space shuttle, was set to continue its stewardship of the depot and the machinery housed there even after the company’s shuttle support contract ends, according to Florida aerospace economic development officials.

USA’s plan called for putting the equipment to use for non-NASA customers, such as the Defense Department, until it was needed again to support a next-generation space transportation system. But new business was slow to materialize and that strategy finally imploded in December when USA’s parent companies barred it from seeking any new business.

“The fact that USA is enjoined from taking on any new work has basically brought it to a halt,” said Frank DiBello, president and chief executive of Space Florida, the quasi-government corporation that oversees aerospace economic development in the state.

“The timing was unfortunate, given how far down the road we had gone,” said Dale Ketcham, director of the Spaceport Research & Technology Institute at Kennedy Space Center.

NASA put out a request for information Jan. 18 to industry, advertising that it wanted to sign a five-year Space Act Agreement with a single company willing to take the equipment in the Shuttle Logistics Depot on loan. Prospective caretakers were told they had to keep the equipment within an 80-kilometer radius of Kennedy Space Center. NASA would provide no funding for the equipments’ upkeep and would reserve the right to ask for it back at any time.

The notice, posted on the Federal Business Opportunities website, was nearly identical to a request for information NASA posted Oct. 6. Ketcham said the October posting was a procedural formality the agency had to complete before “they turned the whole thing over to USA.”

Thomas Engler, NASA’s partnership development manager at Kennedy’s Center Planning & Development Office, would not say exactly why NASA reissued the request for information.

“We had some issues with the first solicitation that didn’t have to do with the solicitation itself,” Engler told Space News Jan. 31. He declined to elaborate, citing “business issues” he was not permitted to discuss.

Ketcham’s organization, which is specializing in finding alternative uses for shuttle infrastructure in and around Kennedy Space Center, has for years spearheaded an effort to reuse the Shuttle Logistics Depot. Prospective uses included refurbishing military equipment returning from overseas and using the diagnostic tools at the depot to screen government and commercial hardware for counterfeit materials and parts.

USA made only limited progress in using the Shuttle Logistics Depot for military and commercial customers, and the “small contracts” it did win to demonstrate the depot’s capabilities are set to expire in the fall, USA spokeswoman Tracy Yates said.

The depot, which employed around 400 USA workers when the shuttle was still flying, is down to a staff of 55, Yates said.

Prior to shuttle retirement, the logistics depot comprised eight buildings, including Building One — the 15,000-square-meter building where most of the NASA equipment is located — and a two-story office building USA has already left. The rest of the buildings, Yates said, are smaller and served as warehouses and storage facilities.

“We are in the process of clearing and vacating the buildings,” Yates said.

Shuttle closeout work will keep at least some of the depot’s remaining workers busy a little while longer. The company’s Space Program Operations Contract, modified in November to cover space shuttle transition and retirement activities, runs through September 2013.

The shuttle closeout work USA has been doing at the logistic depot is set to wrap up by April 2013, about a month after USA’s lease on Building One expires, Yates said.

Whether the equipment at the depot will find a home with some other caretaker or return to Kennedy is yet to be determined, she said.

Equipment stored at the Shuttle Logistics Depot ranges from specialized manufacturing tools and avionics test equipment to desktop computers and television screens.

Both Ketcham and DiBello said that there were some entities mulling the possibility of taking over the whole Shuttle Logistics Depot and maintaining it much as USA did. However, they would not say who these entities were.

 

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