- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2003

NASA officials contributed to the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia by ignoring signals from the aging craft and warnings from engineers while trying to stick to an ambitious launch schedule, according to an exhaustive report released yesterday.

The independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board was unrelenting in its criticism of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The 13 investigators concluded that organizational and cultural problems within NASA, coupled with the pressure space-shuttle managers felt to stay on schedule and continue construction of the International Space Station, contributed to the Feb. 1 loss of Columbia and seven astronauts.

Harold Gehman Jr., the retired Navy admiral who is chairman of the accident investigation board, said changes must be made so the astronauts did not die in vain.

“The loss of lives had better make a difference or this board wasted its time,” he said.

Columbia burned up during re-entry after a falling chunk of foam at liftoff opened a hole in its wing, allowing scorching gases to penetrate the craft.

But the 248-page report peeled back the layers of NASA’s bureaucracy and revealed questionable decisions by senior managers before and after Columbia launched.

“There has to be a different approach,” accident investigation board member Steven Wallace said.

Investigators said NASA forgot lessons learned after the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986. They said the space agency grew overconfident because it went 17 years and 87 shuttle missions without a catastrophe.

The investigation board submitted its report simultaneously yesterday to the White House, Congress, NASA, the astronaut corps and the families of the seven astronauts who died.

Investigators drafted a list of 29 recommendations NASA should make to improve the shuttle program. Fifteen are intended to be in place before the next shuttle launch, tentatively planned for spring, and some are long-term recommendations.

The recommendations are nonbinding, but NASA officials have said they will implement all of them. Congress could force the agency to follow the measures.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said in an address to the space agency’s work force after the report was released that the document will serve as a road map for the future.

President Bush said the report must be reviewed thoroughly.

“Our journey into space will go on. The work of the crew of the Columbia and the heroic explorers who traveled before them will continue,” he said.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, New York Republican, said Congress must use the report to chart NASA’s future.

“All this will take some time. There should not be a rush to judgment. Acting too quickly will close off alternatives and lead to decisions being made without sufficient information, and could also compromise the safety of any future shuttle crew,” said Mr. Boehlert, chairman of the House Science Committee.

The extensive report, completed nearly seven months after the shuttle breakup, went into great detail about NASA’s failure to understand what happened 82 seconds after Columbia lifted off Jan. 16. That’s when a 1.67-pound piece of foam struck the shuttle’s left wing, opening a hole 6 to 10 inches wide.

Investigators placed the failure to understand the foam strike squarely on the shoulders of senior managers. They praised the initiative of engineers who dissected the problem almost immediately after launch.

Investigators said three requests were made for photos of Columbia from Defense Department spy satellites.

A group of engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center made the first request Jan. 17 after noticing the foam strike in film of the launch, NASA’s 113th shuttle mission.

Separately, a group of low-level engineers pursued their own independent investigation to determine whether the hole in Columbia’s left wing was putting the shuttle crew at risk. But when NASA engineer Rodney Rocha asked for photos, he was rejected.

A third request that same day was also denied. Linda Ham, chairwoman of the shuttle’s mission management team at Johnson Space Center, rejected them, seemingly because none of the requests was made through proper channels.

Investigators said that on Jan. 22, a day after the final two requests for photos, Mrs. Ham raised concerns that the extra time spent maneuvering Columbia to make its left wing visible to a spy satellite would delay the mission and could delay future shuttle launches.

Investigators concluded that leaders of the shuttle program simply wanted to get on with the mission. Mrs. Ham’s “priority was to avoid the delay of” the next shuttle launch, they wrote in their report.

A rigid construction schedule was established to ensure construction of the International Space Station by Feb. 19, 2004. Employees told investigators the pressure to meet that goal came directly from Mr. O’Keefe.

The pressure even took the form of a screen saver on NASA computers that provided a countdown to that date.

Meeting that goal required launching 10 shuttles in 16 months.

Yesterday’s report was the first time any mention was made of an ambitious launch schedule contributing to the loss of Columbia.

What’s unusual, investigators wrote, is that “management … displayed no interest in understanding a problem and its implications.”

Investigation board member Maj. Gen. John Barry said the space agency had conflicting goals: keep the aggressive launch schedule and operate the shuttle safely.

“Safety lost out,” he said.

Investigators said little effort was made to understand why foam fell off the shuttle’s external fuel tank in previous launches, and NASA came to accept the phenomenon because the foam had never caused a catastrophe.

“Little by little, NASA was accepting more and more risk in order to stay on schedule,” investigators wrote.

In a small victory for NASA, the investigation board concluded the shuttle “is not inherently unsafe.”

Mr. O’Keefe said that was good news.

But if NASA plans to fly the shuttle beyond 2010, investigators said the agency must develop a new recertification program to inspect the three remaining shuttles, Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour.

“We didn’t put a year on it, but if [NASA] intends to fly it 10 or 15 more years, there are a large number of things they need to do this safely,” Mr. Gehman said.

He also expressed concern that NASA will fail to implement the recommendations outlined in the report.

“The board is concerned that over a year or two, NASA will become less diligent. The history of NASA indicates that they’ve done that before,” Mr. Gehman said. “I don’t believe we should just trust NASA to” implement the recommendations.

Unless NASA makes changes, he said, the agency runs the risk of another shuttle disaster.

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