- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2003

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said yesterday the space agency will open an independent safety office at Langley Research Center in Virginia in hopes of preventing the sort of oversight that led to the Feb. 1 loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

The move is in response to criticism from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which has said the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s safety programs are ineffective.

Investigators also have attributed Columbia’s disaster as much to management failures as to mechanical ones.

“What we’re after, I think, in this situation is to look at what are the management, systemic process changes we should make. We have heard the evidence. We’ve heard the arguments. We’ve heard the debate, and we’ve heard the opinion expressed by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board,” Mr. O’Keefe said.

The new engineering and safety office will report to Bryan O’Connor, the head of NASA’s Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, which is in charge of safety policy. The office will oversee all NASA programs, but it is expected to pay close attention to the agency’s spaceflight efforts.

Engineers in the new safety program try to bolster shuttle safety. That will include helping find a way to stop foam insulation from shedding off external fuel tanks during launch.

Investigators believe a piece of foam insulation hit Columbia and punched a 6- to 10-inch hole in its left wing that let scorching gases penetrate it during re-entry.

About 250 people will work in the new safety department.

NASA hopes the new engineering and safety office can take a broader look at safety issues and bring a fresh perspective through independent testing and analysis.

Investigators have said NASA grew blind to the danger caused by shedding foam insulation because the foam never caused significant damage until the loss of Columbia. Seven astronauts died when the shuttle disintegrated.

At a press conference at NASA headquarters, Mr. O’Keefe said one of the lessons from the Columbia disaster is that the space agency must look at shuttle safety differently.

“When you look at things often enough, you start thinking they’re normal, even if they aren’t,” he said.

The new office is expected to give voice to employees within the agency who have specific safety concerns or simply have a hunch about a problem.

Some of those concerns were overlooked after Columbia lifted off Jan. 16. A group of engineers urged the Columbia mission management team, in charge of daily operations, to ask for Defense Department photos of the shuttle using spy satellites. Senior managers denied the request.

The engineering and safety department will be equipped to field safety concerns from all NASA employees and will establish a simple means of filing concerns electronically.

Mr. O’Keefe vowed the new engineering and safety office will have the independence to do its job and have the authority to raise concerns about shuttle safety.

Their concerns will go to Mr. O’Connor, who has the authority to stop a shuttle launch.

Engineers in the office will conduct tests and analysis to measure shuttle safety. It also will conduct shuttle inspections.

The office will be able to use its findings to issue directives outlining prerequisites for a launch, Mr. O’Keefe said.

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