August 18, 2005

NASA Leaders Blasted Over Safety Measures

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Some safety improvements were skipped by NASA officials as they tried to meet unrealistic launch dates for the space shuttle Discovery, seven members of a larger oversight panel said in a scathing critique.

Poor leadership also made the shuttle's return to space more complicated, expensive and prolonged than it needed to be, the task force members said.

In fact, some of the "disturbing" traits that contributed to the Columbia tragedy - like smug, overbearing managers influencing key decisions - were still present in the months leading up to Discovery's flight, the panelists noted.

"We expected that NASA leadership would set high standards for post-Columbia work ... We were, overall disappointed," they wrote in the task force's final report Wednesday.

The seven critics include a former shuttle astronaut, former undersecretary of the Navy, former Congressional Budget Office director, former moon rocket engineer, retired nuclear engineer and two university professors.

They are part of the 26-member task force that monitored NASA's progress in meeting the recommendations set forth by the Columbia accident investigators. The entire task force concluded in late June in an advance summary - just a month before Discovery's liftoff on the first mission since the Columbia disaster - that the space agency failed to satisfy three of the 15 return-to-flight recommendations.

Those three failed recommendations were arguably the most critical: an inability to prevent dangerous pieces of foam and ice from breaking off the fuel tank during launch; an inability to fix any damage to the shuttle in orbit; and a failure to make the shuttle less vulnerable to debris strikes.

As it turned out, a large, potentially deadly chunk of foam insulation broke off Discovery's modified fuel tank during liftoff on July 26. Unlike in Columbia's tragic case, the piece did not hit Discovery. Nevertheless, NASA grounded the entire shuttle fleet.

The next shuttle mission had been scheduled for September, but now is expected to take place no earlier than March.

"NASA needs to learn the lessons of its past ... lessons provided at the cost of the lives of seventeen astronauts," the seven task force members said, referring to the seven killed aboard Columbia and 10 others who died in the Challenger and Apollo 1 accidents years earlier.

The co-chairmen of the task force, retired Apollo astronaut Thomas Stafford and retired shuttle astronaut Richard Covey, refused to comment Wednesday on the observations of individual panel members.

But Covey and a NASA spokesman said space agency chief Michael Griffin requested that all individual comments, including the 20-page critique from the seven panel members, be included in the official task force report.

The seven said NASA should have done detailed engineering reviews of the Columbia accident investigators' recommendations before committing to short-term launch dates. That way, they said, the space agency would have better understood the foam loss and seriously considered alternative approaches, such as a completely redesigned fuel tank or hardening of the shuttle's thermal skin.

Discovery's original launch date, before Columbia's catastrophic return on Feb. 1, 2003, was March 1 of that year. That date ended up changing 14 times.

As early as September 2003, NASA told the task force that some technical work was not being performed because it could not meet the launch schedule, the seven members noted. "Too often we heard the lament: 'If only we'd known we were down for two years we would have approached this very differently.'"

Discovery astronaut Andrew Thomas said Wednesday that having so many launch dates was indeed "a serious issue."

"There was a line drawn in the sand for a launch date which was so close, actually it was a few months away, that it didn't give people time to do the work the way that was needed," Thomas said. "It would have been better to just say all right, the launch is three years or two years away, that's what you should plan for."

The seven task force members noted that personalities were allowed to dominate over process. "Roles, positions and strength of personality often determined critical outcomes more than facts and analysis," they said.

The seven also blasted NASA's assessment of shuttle risks.

One outcome of all this, the seven said, was out-of-control costs.

"At the end of 2 1/2 years and $1.5 billion or more, it is not clear what has been accomplished," they said.


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