- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2003

The head of the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Columbia breakup said yesterday that NASA can overcome organizational problems that contributed to the loss of the shuttle by establishing an independent safety office.

But the safety and engineering office proposed by NASA after Columbia broke apart won’t accomplish that goal, said retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

What NASA plans to establish at Langley Research Center isn’t what investigators requested, Adm. Gehman told the House Science Committee.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said in June the space agency would start a new safety program to provide analysis of technical and mechanical issues in the shuttle program and other NASA programs.

While acknowledging it’s too early to know just what the safety and engineering office will look like, Adm. Gehman said it does not appear the new organization will have the independence it needs to provide effective oversight.

Like Adm. Gehman, lawmakers, too, expressed skepticism about NASA’s proposed safety program.

“I’m also concerned that NASA has been trumpeting changes in its safety organization that do not appear to address any of the problems that have been persuasively identified in the [investigation boards] report,” said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, New York Republican and committee chairman.

In the 248-page report on the Feb. 1 loss of Columbia and the deaths of seven astronauts, investigators said NASA’s “broken safety culture” contributed to the breakup. They concluded that safety engineers didn’t have the independence or the resources to be an effective voice in discussions about technical issues or mission operations during Columbia’s 16-day mission.

So investigators proposed NASA form a technical engineering authority to develop and maintain technical standards for the shuttle and analyze mechanical risks. They also recommended giving NASA’s Office of Safety and Mission Assurance direct authority over the shuttle program. That would shift control over decisions about safety issues out of the hands of the shuttle program managers.

“It’s an extremely important recommendation we’ve given NASA,” Sheila Widnall, a member of the investigation board and professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told lawmakers.

NASA’s current safety system allowed the agency to develop a “blind spot” about the foam insulation that came off Columbia’s external fuel tank and pierced the left wing. Foam peeled off the fuel tank’s bipod ramp — a piece of metal between the shuttle and fuel tank — at least seven times since 1983. Pieces of foam insulation have shed from some part of the fuel tank on 65 of the 79 shuttle launches NASA has filmed.

Despite that, the space agency didn’t think foam could damage the shuttle, investigators concluded.

Rep. Ralph M. Hall, Texas Democrat, said Congress and NASA must address the risks to shuttle flight so there isn’t a repeat of the Columbia or 1986 Challenger disasters.

“Congress thought we fixed it and NASA thought they fixed it. We were wrong twice. We can’t afford to be wrong again,” he said.

Adm. Gehman agreed to review a year from now NASA’s efforts to comply with the 29 recommendations outlined in the report.

NASA has formed a committee to oversee its efforts to resume shuttle flights.

Adm. Gehman’s testimony was his second in two days before a congressional panel. It was far more cordial than the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on Wednesday.

Senators wanted to know why Mr. O’Keefe has not pinned blame on shuttle program officials responsible for the loss of Columbia. But Mr. O’Keefe didn’t attend the House hearing, where lawmakers wanted to discuss a crew escape system for the shuttle and speeding up development of the space program’s next vehicle.

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