- The Washington Times - Monday, February 3, 2003

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Shortages of key experts, as well as tight budgets and mounting safety concerns, plagued the nation's space program in recent years, according to a trail of reports by congressional auditors, outside panels and NASA retirees.
It may be determined in the next several weeks whether the problems were a forewarning to the explosion of Space Shuttle Columbia on Saturday.
NASA critics both in and outside the government and investigators into the accident are sure to comb the reports for anything that might explain the disintegration of the spacecraft nearly 40 miles above Texas as it screamed toward a landing in Florida at more than 12,000 mph.
As President Bush took office, the investigative arm of Congress found in 2001 that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration shuttle work force had, over the years, declined significantly to the point where the agency's ability to safely support the program was being adversely affected.
Many key areas were not sufficiently staffed by qualified workers, and the remaining work force showed signs of overwork and fatigue, the General Accounting Office stated.
There were other warnings, including a report on the shuttle program to Congress in April by a federally mandated safety panel of outside experts that expressed "the strongest safety concern" in 15 years.
"We just received a GAO report, I think last week, that looked at NASA's oversight of some of their private contractors and basically said it was inadequate," Sen. John B. Breaux, Louisiana Democrat, said Sunday on CNN.
Mr. Breaux and other members of Congress made clear Sunday that safety and the NASA budget will come under intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill this year, beginning Monday when the White House sends lawmakers details of Mr. Bush's priorities for the agency next year.
"Inevitably, there will be a discussion out of this about how much NASA should be funded, should there be another orbiter built and, in fact, has it been so poorly funded in recent years that maybe, just maybe, it wasn't as safe as it should be?" said Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, a former astronaut who flew aboard Columbia.
The House Science Committee will take the lead in Congress' investigation of the disaster, focusing on how much money has been devoted to the safety of the shuttle and other space programs and whether the explosion could have been prevented with more resources.
Mr. Nelson, appearing on CNN's "Final Edition" and on NBC's "Meet the Press," said he didn't think delays in utilizing new safety technologies contributed to the accident. "But sadly, because of this tragedy, we'll get those upgrades," he said.
The senator added that if the White House won't increase NASA's budget to develop programs, then some costs "could be borne by an agency that is flush with cash, such as the Defense Department."
The House panel's chairman, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, New York Republican, said he knows of no specific technological flaws that could have contributed to the accident.
"NASA has always had very high marks in terms of technological competence," he said. "It's been somewhat questionable and spotty in terms of financial management."
A retired NASA engineer, Don A. Nelson, wrote Mr. Bush in August about what he said was inadequate safety of the shuttle but was rebutted by the White House's science adviser.
"Your intervention is required to prevent another catastrophic space shuttle accident," said Mr. Nelson, no relation to the senator. He suggested that shuttle crews be limited to four persons, saying that "if this … is ignored we can watch in horror and shame as the astronauts face certain death."
Bush science adviser John Marburger yesterday defended the administration's response to Mr. Nelson's concerns and said the president would make the same decisions even today. Mr. Nelson advocated an escape module for the shuttle crews, a proposal that would require extensive redesign efforts, NASA official Bill Readdy wrote in 1999.
"When we looked at the way NASA was responding to those issues, we decided it was not justified," Mr. Marburger said.
While many of the shuttle-safety warnings in years past were blunt, they often were tempered with qualified praise for NASA.
For example, the GAO credited NASA for discontinuing downsizing plans for the shuttle program in December 1999 and for initiating efforts to hire more staff. But even with these efforts, the training of the new staff and dealing with critical losses because of retirements are "considerable challenges," the auditors said.
In the report to Congress in April, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel noted that "safety has not yet been compromised. NASA and its contractors maintain excellent safety practices and processes as well as a world-class level of safety consciousness."
On the other hand, the safety panel's former chairman, Richard D. Blomberg, told Congress that many engineering improvements have been cut or delayed for budget reasons, and "some of these would directly reduce flight risk."

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