February 18, 2005

Survey: NASA Safety Culture Improving

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- NASA is making strong progress in changing its safety culture after the breakdown that led to the Columbia tragedy, but many workers are still afraid to speak their minds, according to survey results released Friday.

NASA, meanwhile, set May 15 for the first space shuttle launch since the catastrophe. The space agency has been saying for months that it hoped to launch in mid-May.

While considerable work remains before Discovery can blast off on the long-awaited test flight, "this date feels real good to me," launch director Mike Leinbach said.

NASA's top spaceflight official, former astronaut Bill Readdy, said the biggest challenge in coming weeks is to complete all the necessary paperwork not only for Discovery but also for Atlantis, the shuttle that would attempt a rescue mission in mid-June if there were serious launch damage to Discovery.

"The vehicle can't launch until all the paperwork is done. I know that sounds a little bit trivial, but documentation of each and everything we do is very important," Readdy said.

Columbia was destroyed during re-entry in February 2003, and all seven astronauts were killed, because the left wing was gashed at liftoff by a chunk of fuel-tank foam insulation. But accident investigators put equal blame on what they termed NASA's broken safety culture.

Behavioral Science Technology Inc., the California company that has spent the past year working at Houston's Johnson Space Center and other NASA installations around the country to fix that culture, conducted a survey in September and found the safety climate much improved from February 2004.

"NASA is making solid progress in its effort to strengthen the culture," the company concluded.

The company noted that there is significant skepticism and resistance to change, but said that is not unusual when an organization tries to transform itself.

Among the favorable comments sent to Behavioral Science Technology by NASA employees who voluntarily and anonymously took part in the survey:

_"The shoot-the-messenger mentality is going away. It is easier to bring up bad news and get a positive response to resolve the problem."

_"Minority opinions are regularly solicited in meetings."

Among the comments indicating the safety culture has worsened:

_"Fear of reprisal still strong if you challenge center management."

_"I have seen the managers who have create dour current cultural problems 'dig their heels in' in order to do everything within their power to keep things from changing."

Some workers also expressed concern over NASA's new goal of reaching the moon and Mars, and the turmoil and stress caused by the competition for jobs among the various space agency centers.

"I see a very confused NASA culture in the last six months," one worker wrote. "President Bush's announcement of his moon/Mars goals and the canceling of many existing programs has turned the agency upside down. We have been told to compete and cooperate in the same breath."

Readdy called NASA's attempts at culture shift "very much a work in progress."


On the Net:

NASA: www.nasa.gov