NEW YORK (CBS.MW) -- The aerospace industry will be closely following developments on the cause of Saturday's disaster involving the space shuttle Columbia.
Even as the industry heightened its focus on space surveillance ahead of a potential conflict in Iraq, the space flight program has received little attention. That will change.
The current program is run under the auspices of the United Space Alliance, which includes two of the world's largest aerospace companies, Boeing /zigman2/quotes/208579720/composite BA +3.80% and Lockheed Martin /zigman2/quotes/200691238/composite LMT +0.13% .
Charged with managing about one-third of NASA's space shuttle budget, USA was formed as a joint venture in November 1995 by Lockheed, the world's biggest defense contractor, and Rockwell International /zigman2/quotes/206335564/composite ROK -0.69% . Lockheed had been the lead ground operations contractor, while Rockwell was the lead flight contractor in the joint venture.
The first space shuttle mission managed by the consortium was in November 1996 and involved Columbia. At that time, the 17-day mission set a record for being the longest shuttle flight
Boeing, the No. 1 aerospace company, became a partner in USA when it bought Rockwell's aerospace and defense group in December 1996.
A USA spokeswoman referred inquiries to NASA.
Privatization's goals and relationships
Reducing the cost of space flight was an important component of the change, which effectively helped privatize the program. The shuttle program had a budget of about $3.2 billion in 2003, about flat with the prior two fiscal years.
The fleet has 75 percent of its design life remaining, according to Boeing, the builder of the shuttle. See details of the shuttle flight plan. Boeing's responsibilities include production, modification and operation of the shuttle's orbiter, payload integration, and launch and mission support.
One of Lockheed's major shuttle responsibilities is one of the most visible on the shuttle: the huge, orange external fuel tank attached to the shuttle's undercarriage. Marion LaNasa, a Lockheed spokesman, said the tank is typically jettisoned about eight minutes into a shuttle flight.
LaNasa said Lockheed does not have any direct contact with the shuttle during a mission.
NASA officials said they would stop work on some shuttle-related activities. Speaking at the Johnson Space Center in Texas, Ron Dittemore, shuttle program manager, said NASA would slow down manufacturing at the production facility in Michoud, La., where Lockheed builds the shuttles' external tanks.
Another prominent company with ties to the shuttle, Alliant Techsystems , stands to be in investors' minds when markets open on Monday. ATK's Thiokol Propulsion division builds the solid rocket boosters that sit opposite the shuttle's fuel tank and are recovered after launch for future uses.
On Jan. 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded not long after takeoff when one of the solid-rocket booster engines exploded just over a minute into the flight. Morton Thiokol, the predecessor to Thiokol Propulsion, made the booster. ATK bought Thiokol Propulsion from Alcoa /zigman2/quotes/200686102/composite AA +3.04% , in 2001.
Columbia had long legacy
Columbia marked the United States' return to manned space flight after a five-year absence, when it first flew in 1981, and with 27 missions as of March 2002 was the oldest shuttle of the fleet.
Columbia was the only shuttle to fly until the launch of Challenger in 1982. Discovery first flew in 1984 and has completed 30 missions. Atlantis' maiden flight took place in 1985 and has 24 missions to its name. The newest shuttle, Endeavour, was first launched in 1992 and has just 19 flights.
Four shuttle flights were planned in 2003.
The fate of the International Space Station, a $95 billion project nearing the final stages of completion, could hang in the balance following the loss of Columbia.
After Challenger exploded, more than two years passed before another shuttle went into orbit. However, the ISS currently has three astronauts on board who have food, air and water to last for months but the station's orbit above the planet needs to be boosted by a visiting shuttle periodically.
The next space shuttle mission was to have left on March 1 to carry a new segment to the space station, with astronaut Eileen Collins in command of the shuttle Atlantis.