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NASA to Create Independent Safety Center - 2003-07-16

The U.S. space agency NASA says it will create an independent office to review the safety of its programs, including the space shuttle. The announcement follows the loss of the shuttle Columbia in February and criticism of NASA management by investigators probing the disaster.

NASA says its new engineering and safety center will provide a comprehensive examination of all space agency projects. The center will be based at a NASA branch in Hampton, Virginia with a broad range of expertise in research and testing aeronautical and aerospace engineering.

Overseeing the safety effort will be the new chief of the NASA branch, former shuttle pilot Roy Bridges. He has just taken up the job as part of an agency personnel shuffle in the wake of Columbia's demise.

The independent board investigating the shuttle disaster is preparing to issue a report that it says will criticize management decisions prior to the accident. NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe says the new safety center will address some of the panel's concerns.

"While the report is not written, they nonetheless have pointed throughout the course of their many public hearings that what they view as being a deficiency and an issue that needs to have some specific attention from the agency overall is the establishment of an independent engineering analysis capability that can be brought to bear on a wide range of circumstances across the agency," he said.

The new NASA center will not be in the chain of command of any particular project, but will be able to assess the quality of agency engineering independently. This is a response to the investigators' findings that shuttle managers had ignored the concerns of lower-level shuttle engineers about Columbia's safety during its flight.

The engineers had asked for satellite surveillance of the orbiter after learning that a piece of hard insulating foam had ripped away from Columbia's external fuel tank and slammed into its left wing shortly after launch. NASA officials rejected the engineers' request, saying the foam could not have damaged the wing.

But the investigators believe otherwise. After a five-month probe, they cite evidence showing that the foam almost certainly punch the hole in the wing, allowing extremely hot gases to enter and melt it during re-entry.

The chairman of the panel said recently that failures of the NASA system are just as responsible for Columbia's demise as is the piece of errant foam. The board's report is expected in August.