- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2003

Today, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) is expected to issue its final findings on the failures that led to the loss of the space shuttle Feb. 1. Its technical and managerial recommendations have already been signaled, and while it is critical that NASA personnel implement the necessary short-term fixes, it is even more important that NASA’s leaders keep their focus on the agency’s long-term goals for humans in space.

The CAIB has called for NASA to make orbital imaging a requirement for each flight; for the International Space Station (ISS) to develop the capacity to inspect and repair the shuttle’s thermal protection system; and for additional images to be taken of the shuttle from blastoff to separation. Less has been said about NASA’s management failures, but those are expected to be more fully addressed in the CAIB’s report. According to a recent report in The Washington Post, “The panel has concluded that NASA must aggressively reform its decision-making culture to break down bureaucratic walls that persistently isolate its engineers from its managers and from outside experts.”

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe has made a commitment to work on these problems. Other NASA officials have promised to follow CAIB’s recommendations “to the letter,” which seems likely to happen on the technical side, especially given Mr. O’Keefe’s hope of resuming shuttle flights next spring. The necessary cultural changes will take longer to effect. Yet, even if NASA expeditiously implements all of CAIB’s guidances, it still will not be enough to prevent every future flight accident. Shortly before he perished in the pad fire, Apollo 1 astronaut Gus Grissom observed that space travel is “a risky business.” That remains as true as Mr. Grissom’s corollary, “The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.”

However, the lives of astronauts should not be gambled on a directionless space program. It is expected to take about four shuttle flights for the ISS’s essential components to be added. After that, Mr. O’Keefe said he believes the planned Orbital Space Plane will be the best vehicle with which to ferry astronauts there, and policymakers should give the idea serious consideration. NASA will have to take tangible steps towards solving the propulsion, power and physiological problems that longer-term space travel entails. If those challenges can be addressed, possible destinations include establishment of a permanent base on the moon or an exploratory voyage to Mars.

Shortly after Columbia vanished into memory, we urged President Bush to present his administration’s vision of the future of manned space travel, and its plan for fulfilling it, in his next State of the Union. We do so again today. It is important that space policy-makers not be so focused on fixing NASA’s immediate problems that they are blind to its long-term goals.

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