Wednesday, August 27, 2003

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe yesterday pledged to transform the space agency and root out the organizational problems that investigators said contributed to the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

While Mr. O’Keefe took responsibility for all activities within the agency, he said he would rather hire strong leaders than remove people implicated by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board on Tuesday.

Separately, the director of the NASA center where foam insulation is applied to the shuttle’s external fuel tank took responsibility yesterday for the mechanical failure behind the Feb. 1 loss of the shuttle —the 1.67-pound piece of foam that broke off the shuttle’s external fuel tank and pierced Columbia’s left wing.

Mr. O’Keefe said the agency will make organizational changes and will comply with all 29 recommendations that investigators outlined in their 248-page report on the loss of Columbia and the deaths of seven astronauts.

“We get it. [We] clearly got the point. There is just no question that … what we need to do is examine the cultural procedures, the systems, the way we do business, the principles and values that we adhere to,” Mr. O’Keefe told reporters at NASA headquarters.

Mr. O’Keefe said when he read the report he was surprised at the extent of the communication breakdown within the shuttle program during Columbia’s 16-day mission, but he disputed that an aggressive launch schedule caused anyone to overlook safety concerns.

The schedule of shuttle launches is established by the space shuttle program office in conjunction with the program manager of the International Space Station.

Investigators said shuttle program managers felt pressure to keep the mission on schedule so NASA could maintain its launch schedule. That pressure prevented shuttle managers from spending time debating the extent of damage to Columbia, according to the report. A piece of foam insulation slammed into Columbia’s left wing during liftoff, opening a hole 6 to 10 inches wide.

But Mr. O’Keefe argued the agency takes the appropriate precautions.

Standing in the lobby at NASA headquarters, Bill Readdy, NASA’s associate administrator, emphasized that point.

“I see a culture that, at every juncture, when we had a choice to make between schedule and safety, we always chose safety. We always chose to [delay] the schedule. When we found something we didn’t understand … we stopped. We tried to understand it,” Mr. Readdy said.

Investigators said stronger checks and balances should be established to ensure that safety concerns aren’t ignored. Investigators recommended NASA establish an independent Technical Engineering Authority. Low-level engineers expressed concern about the piece of foam that hit Columbia almost 82 seconds after liftoff. When they were ignored by shuttle program managers, they had nowhere to take their concerns about damage to Columbia, investigators wrote in their report.

Even while Mr. O’Keefe acknowledged there were communication failures during Columbia’s mission, he failed to cast blame on anyone in the agency.

“Certainly this was a wake-up call,” Mr. O’Keefe said. “It wasn’t for lack of people talking. It was for lack of people coordinating those observations effectively to serve up appropriate decision-making.”

In the report, investigators detailed examples of senior managers ignoring engineers, who suggested photographs of Columbia from a Defense Department satellite could help determine the scope of damage to the shuttle’s left wing.

Investigators made clear in their report that Linda Ham, chairwoman of the mission management team during the 16-day Columbia mission, made decisions blindly by failing to listen to the agency’s engineers.

Mrs. Ham has been removed from her job and is expected to be reassigned.

Mr. O’Keefe indicated that rather than fire people, he will hire managers who understand the need for institutional change.

“It is not about changing … individual faces in each of those positions. It is about longer-term institutional changes that must be made. And again, to that point, we get it,” he said.

But Air Force Brig. Gen. Duane Deal, one of the investigators on the 13-member panel, said the board did not go far enough in its recommended safety changes.

In his supplemental report, he urged NASA to strengthen shuttle inspections and correct mechanical problems that were unrelated to the disaster but could cause another.

Gen. Deal said yesterday he felt compelled to highlight these issues after they ended up being buried, downplayed or dropped from the final report.

Dave King, director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, did take responsibility. At a press conference at the center, he said the center must accept blame for the foam that came off Columbia’s fuel tank.

“We bear the responsibility of the foam coming off the tank,” he said.

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