Investigators will conclude their inquiry into the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegration tomorrow when they issue an exhaustive review of NASA’s shuttle program and a scathing critique of agency officials.
The long-awaited report from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board will provide much more than an explanation of the mechanical issues behind the Feb. 1 breakup of the space shuttle and the deaths of the seven astronauts aboard.
Investigators have outlined in detail the mechanical failures that led to Columbia’s fiery disintegration during re-entry. They know a piece of foam insulation dropped from the external fuel tank almost 82 seconds after launch Jan. 16 and pierced a hole in the shuttle’s left wing that let scorching gases penetrate Columbia.
But near the end of the inquiry, the head of the accident investigation board said management errors at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration were as responsible as mechanical problems for causing the Columbia disaster.
About half of the report will delve into the management issues that contributed to the accident, which occurred on NASA’s 113th shuttle mission.
“Absolutely it’s going to say NASA is not organized to [operate the shuttle program], and it needs to restructure completely,” said Mike Wiskerchen, associate director of the Space Institute at the University of California and a former NASA scientist who was a member of the team charged with improving shuttle safety after the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.
The 250-page report is the product of nearly seven months of work by the 13-member independent panel. They interviewed more than 200 people, relied on the findings of 120 investigators and sifted through more than 30,000 documents, said Laura Brown, spokeswoman for the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.
The longest chapter in the landmark report will be a 37-page section on NASA’s handling of e-mails. NASA engineers warned in e-mails about potential damage to carbon panels along the leading edge of Columbia’s left wing from the foam that hit the shuttle. In other e-mails, written as late as the day before the shuttle’s return, engineers warned that Columbia could have difficulty landing because of damage during liftoff.
A Jan. 27 e-mail suggested NASA officials ask the Defense Department to photograph Columbia with a spy satellite to help diagnose the extent of damage to its left wing.
NASA engineer Rodney Rocha pursued a similar request, and he sent an e-mail to colleagues Jan. 21 that said “without better images it will be difficult to even bound the problem.”
Top NASA officials have said they never saw the e-mails, and lawmakers have criticized the space agency for the way warnings and requests from lower-level engineers were handled.
Investigators have uncovered other examples of communication breakdowns.
Linda Ham, chairman of the mission management team at Johnson Space Center, said July 22 that she heard informally about requests for images of Columbia. Since she was not able to identify who asked for the images, she never passed along a request for satellite photos.
“I think that was a terrible decision. If NASA had known about the problem, they would have pulled out all the stops,” said Harry McDonald, former director at NASA Ames Research Center and an engineering professor at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga.
NASA has had a long-standing problem with internal communications, Mr. Wiskerchen said. After the Challenger explosion, investigators found it took up to six weeks to pass information from low-level engineers to senior-level engineers within the shuttle program.
“It still is [slow]. They still communicate by paper,” he said.
Investigators also explored NASA’s widely held belief that foam could not damage shuttles. That assumption provided the foundation for faulty decisions and was bolstered by analysis from Boeing Co., which concluded Columbia might have been damaged by foam immediately after launch but would land safely.
Transcripts of meetings while Columbia was in orbit show that Mrs. Ham and others embraced the flawed Boeing analysis. She said during a meeting Jan. 24 that foam posed “no safety of flight and no issue for this mission.”
Investigators have said foam insulation peeled off the bipod ramp on at least seven shuttle flights, including the Columbia mission, but NASA continued to fly without correcting the problem.
The investigation board probably will take a harsh view of NASA’s tendency to ignore the risk from foam insulation.
“I think the [Columbia Accident Investigation Board] will be very tough in its criticism,” Duke University professor and NASA historian Alex Roland said.
To prepare NASA employees for the criticism, agency Administrator Sean O’Keefe has tried to desensitize the space agency’s work force. In one of his most recent pep talks, he told workers July 23 at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt that “we might get hammered. But we will come out of this better.”
Others aren’t so sure.
“I don’t think they’re prepared to fix the mistakes the board points out,” Mr. Roland said. “I think the direct causes [of Columbias disintegration] were systemic, and they aren’t going to look at the system. There’s a real fear that nothing changes.”
Congressional oversight committees are paying close attention to the investigation, and a bevy of hearings is likely once lawmakers return from recess next week.
“But they have a short attention span,” Mr. Roland said.
NASA has appointed the Stafford-Covey Commission to oversee efforts to implement the recommendations of the accident investigation board, but one of its chairmen has acknowledged the commission has limited authority. Mr. McDonald suggested tomorrow’s report should include a recommendation to create an independent board to ensure NASA doesn’t simply ignore the measures outlined by investigators.
“NASA is very good at saying, ‘Yes, yes,’ and doing” nothing, he said.