August 17, 2005

Shuttle Problems Linger, NASA Panel Members Say

MELBOURNE, Florida -- NASA's efforts to resume shuttle flights were tainted by some of the same problems that caused the 2003 Columbia disaster, seven members of an oversight task force wrote in a minority opinion attached to the panel's final report released on Wednesday.

"It is difficult to be objective based on hindsight, but it appears to us that lessons that should have been learned have not been," wrote seven of the 26 members who oversaw how NASA implemented the recommendations of Columbia accident investigators.

"NASA needs to learn the lessons of its past, lessons provided at the cost of the lives of 17 astronauts," they wrote.

In addition to the seven astronauts who died aboard Columbia, the agency lost seven astronauts during the 1986 Challenger disaster and three Apollo astronauts during a launch pad test in 1967.

In a teleconference with reporters, task group leaders Thomas Stafford and Richard Covey, both former astronauts, distanced the panel from the individuals' opinions, which were included in the final report as supplemental papers.

"Those observations stand on their own," Covey said. "We're not going to comment on those."

In a preliminary report released in June, the panel said NASA failed to meet fully the three most critical recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.


The final report, however, includes supplemental papers, including one signed by seven members that cites continuing management problems, engineering shortfalls and schedule pressures in the shuttle program.

For example, the members wrote that NASA did not plan its return to shuttle flight by determining what work needed to be done and setting a realistic schedule. As a result, engineers redesigned the shuttle's external fuel tank before knowing how vulnerable the ship's heat shield was to debris impact.

A piece of insulation fell off Columbia's tank during launch and damaged the ship's wing. The shuttle was torn apart by atmospheric forces 16 days later as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere for landing. 

The report also said NASA is too willing to accept risks based on past performance, an attitude that doomed the Columbia crew.

Because it had never lost a crew due to debris falling off the tank and striking the shuttle, NASA considered the issue a matter of post-flight maintenance, not flight safety.

The members reserved their harshest criticism for NASA management.

"What we observed, during the return-to-flight effort, was that NASA leadership often did not set the proper tone, establish achievable expectations, or hold people accountable for meeting them," the report said.

"On many occasions, we observed weak understanding of basic program management and systems engineering principles, an abandonment of traditional processes, and a lack of rigor in execution."

Stafford and Covey defended NASA, saying that returning the shuttle to flight after the accident was a very difficult task and that overall the shuttle is safer than it was in 2003.

"Everybody's going to have a different perspective," Covey said. "If you watch sausage being made, it's not always pretty and some people are going to find it uglier than others. I personally did not find the process, as it played out, unusual."

In another supplemental report, panel member Charles Daniel, a former NASA engineer, pointed out that NASA never did establish exactly why the chunk of foam fell off from Columbia's tank. Instead, the foam in the area was removed and replaced with electric heaters to ward off potentially dangerous ice formations.

That action, wrote Daniel, did not affect other areas of the tank where foam was similarly applied.

The report was written before NASA launched shuttle Discovery last month on the agency's first manned mission since the Columbia accident. Several large chunks of foam fell off during that launch as well, prompting NASA to halt shuttle flights again until the problem is fixed.


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