- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2003

Critics expect NASA to reassign more employees in the wake of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, but those changes may not occur before a report later this month from the board investigating the shuttle’s Feb. 1 disintegration.

NASA said this week it will reassign three shuttle-program employees.

“Even NASA won’t be able to get away with not making changes,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican and chairman of the House Science Committee’s subcommittee on space and aeronautics.

Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, said yesterday he hopes the personnel changes improve shuttle safety.

“It is unfortunate that it has taken a tragic event like that of the Space Shuttle Columbia to necessitate some important changes to the shuttle program. I am hopeful any personnel changes will enhance the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s goal of preventing another disaster,” said Mr. Brownback, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on science, technology and space.

NASA will reassign Linda Ham, a 21-year NASA veteran who headed Columbia’s mission-management team; Ralph Roe, who was manager of the program’s vehicle-engineering office, and Lambert Austin, manager of systems integration at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Mrs. Ham’s mission-management team had oversight of the Columbia’s daily operations and was responsible for the decision, now widely criticized, not to ask the Defense Department to photograph the shuttle in orbit with spy satellites.

A group of NASA engineers met Jan. 21 at Johnson Space Center and decided the space agency should ask the Defense Department to photograph Columbia. But the senior managers denied the request.

The mission-management team also accepted the analysis from a NASA contractor that concluded a chunk of foam insulation could not have pierced Columbia’s thermal-protection tiles. A Jan. 23 report from the contractor said the shuttle could return safely despite damage to the tiles.

NASA’s decision to reassign the officials was spurred in part by congressional critics who have demanded changes in the shuttle program since May.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, has been one of the leading critics, pushing the space agency to hold employees accountable for Columbia’s loss. While Mr. McCain has called repeatedly for that accountability, accident investigators have said repeatedly they don’t endorse a witch hunt to remove employees.

Harold Gehman, chairman of the independent Columbia Accident Investigation Board, has said NASA must overhaul its management structure, including giving safety engineers independence.

Congressional staffers agree.

“Moving a few people around won’t quite do it. It’s not about moving people around. It’s about making sure [NASA] has a viable, independent safety program,” said a Republican congressional aide who asked not to be identified.

But the personnel changes may signal NASA’s willingness to hold people accountable for the loss of Columbia, said Alex Roland, Duke University history professor and NASA historian.

“It’s hard to tell. You could take it as punishment of a certain kind, or getting some of the victims out of the line of fire before the [accident investigation board’s] report comes out,” Mr. Roland said.

NASA expects the report to present a scathing analysis. NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe warned workers last week it would be “really ugly” and skewer the space agency.

Mrs. Ham, who was unavailable for comment yesterday, is one of those who may be the subject of harsh criticism.

“The [Columbia Accident Investigation] board is going to be very critical of certain people, and she is one of them,” NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said.

Mrs. Ham has been with NASA 21 years and served as flight director on former Sen. John Glenn’s flight in 1998. Mr. Glenn was the first American to orbit Earth, in 1962.

Mrs. Ham’s new placement has not been determined, and it’s unclear whether she will stay in the space shuttle program.

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