The shuttle crash is raising questions about the practice.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- NASA is the boss and brand name, but America's shuttle program is largely a private enterprise, and so are many other operations of the federal government.
Increasingly, Washington is turning to contractors to do tasks both menial and major: testing soil, managing national laboratories, supporting troops, running Indian schools, opening tax returns, and much more. The privatization of government is sizable and spread across the bureaucracy.
Even the decision to send airport security back to the feds after the Sept. 11 attacks has not dimmed the enthusiasm for contracting out federal services. "It's a sort of shadow work force," says Jacqueline Simon of the American Federation of Government Employees.
Last year, President Bush proposed making it easier to turn as many as 850,000 more federal jobs over to the private sector, part of a trend to have others share the government's workload while trimming the federal payroll and ostensibly getting better quality work at less cost. The government now employs more than 1.7 million civilians directly.
But the weekend disaster in which the Columbia shuttle disintegrated minutes from arrival in Florida, killing all seven astronauts on board, is raising questions.
"I would wager that most Americans did not know, and probably still don't know, that Boeing is more responsible for the launch of the space shuttle than NASA," says Paul Light, a Brookings Institution expert on the bureaucracy.
In 1996, NASA awarded a six-year contract worth $9 billion to United Space Alliance, a Houston-based partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to manage day-to-day operations of the shuttle fleet. The contract was extended last year for two years.
Those contractors in turn use more than 120 subcontractors at the Johnson and Kennedy space centers, performing tasks such as strapping astronauts into their seats, laying concrete tiles on the shuttle and positioning the solid rocket boosters for liftoff.
All government agencies use outside companies to get some of their work done, and entire industries exist to compete for Defense, Energy and Transportation department contracts.
More than 54,000 companies held contracts worth more than $25,000 in 2001, the government says.
The Energy Department has 100,000 contractors, six times the number of its direct employees, 16,000. The Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia national laboratories are run by contractors.
The Defense Department uses contractors for everything from peeling potatoes to designing and building weapons. Army Secretary Thomas E. White recently directed his commanders to submit plans to privatize any job not essential to fighting wars.
But in at least one area, the government reversed course on outsourcing.
Private security firms did such a poor job at airports before and after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington that the Bush administration assumed the responsibility, created an agency to oversee it and brought more than 45,000 security screeners onto the federal payroll.
Light, the Brookings scholar, said Congress and the executive branch figured out long ago that government would look a lot smaller if jobs were awarded to private enterprises, whose employees don't show up in the roster of federal civil service workers. Indeed, the government does not even keep track of how many contractors work for it overall.
He estimated the total federal work force at 17 million, including postal workers, the armed services, civil service workers, contractors, federal grant recipients and state and local government employees who implement various federal mandates.