The space shuttle Columbia disaster comes at a difficult time for Boeing Co.
Already suffering from enornmous declines in its commercial airplane business, the Chicago-based aerospace giant now has been humbled by a disaster in its most prestigious program.
As one of two prime contractors working with the NASA, Boeing has seen its involvement with the shuttle grow over time.
With cuts in NASA's budget, the agency has relied increasingly on outside contractors to make its space missions fly.
Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp. operate a joint venture called United Space Alliance, which was created in 1995 after NASA said it wanted a single prime contractor to manage its shuttle operations. Houston-based USA employs about 10,500 people.
The alliance oversees all 2.5 million parts that make up each shuttle. It oversees mission planning, flight operations, software design, astronaut and flight-controller training, payload integration and vehicle processing, launch and recovery.
It also is responsible for ground operations at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, from building and testing shuttle equipment to retrieving the solid rocket boosters that tumble into the Atlantic soon after liftoff.
Before the Columbia tragedy, the alliance estimated it had saved the government $1.2 billion since 1996. Launches canceled because of equipment problems decreased by two-thirds.
Boeing officials on Sunday said it is too early to say how the shuttle disaster could affect its work for the agency. Nor would they comment on what might have happened to Columbia, saying the company is helping NASA with its investigation.
"Going into that right now would be highly speculative," said Boeing spokesman Walt Rice.
Effect on revenues minimal
Even if the shuttle program is halted for nearly three years, as it was after the Challenger disaster in January 1986, Boeing is not expected take a huge financial blow.
USA's most-recent contract with NASA, a two-year extension worth $2.9 billion, brings little to Boeing's revenues and bottom line.
Combined with a separate contract for work on the International Space Station, Boeing's manned space work currently accounts for less than 4 percent of Boeing's $54.1 billion in revenues, Rice said.
Still, the implications of the Columbia explosion reach beyond money, first to questions about why the shuttle broke up upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere, then to concerns about Boeing's role and whether it will maintain the cachet and access to technological advances that come with leading the shuttle program.
There is no reason to believe that the Columbia problem lies with Boeing, NASA officials said.
"We don't know what was the cause of what happened Saturday. We can't accuse or blame anyone of anything until we find out what happened," said NASA spokesman Pat Ryan.
When the Challenger exploded after takeoff in 1986, the cause was faulty parts on its solid rocket boosters, which continue to be manufactured by the same company, ATK Thiokol, formerly called Morton-Thiokol.
Assigning responsibility for Columbia may be easier than it was 17 years ago, said Marco Caceres, director of space studies for Teal Group, an aerospace research firm in Fairfax, Va.