Investigators have issued a scathing report on the causes of the U.S. space shuttle Columbia disaster, which killed seven astronauts in February. They found that the management of the space agency, NASA, is as much to blame for the accident as the immediate technical cause.
The harsh report repeats the accident investigators' previous finding that Columbia was doomed upon landing by a piece of wayward hard foam insulation that had pierced the shuttle's left wing during launch.
It concludes that the shuttle is not inherently unsafe, but that NASA management is. That is, the agency does not have a strong culture of safety.
The report says that, under severe budget constraints, NASA developed practices detrimental to safety. Agency funding dropped 40 percent during the 1990s as the Clinton administration sought to reduce the huge U.S. budget deficit. Panel member John Barry, an Air Force major general, says that in this fiscal atmosphere, NASA pitted safety against meeting shuttle flight schedules.
"NASA had conflicting goals of cost, schedule, and safety," observed General Barry. "And unfortunately, safety lost out in a lot of areas to the mandates of operational requirements."
The investigators say NASA relied heavily on the experiences of past successful missions as a substitute for sound engineering and testing. They found that the space agency threw up barriers to effective communication about critical safety information and stifled professional differences of opinion.
Panel member John Logsdon of Georgetown University's Space Policy Institute says that in its drive to get to orbit, NASA's shuttle program operated in uncertainty, stress, and tension.
"It is hardly an environment for effective, safe operation of the program, the board concluded. We go into some detail in discussing the particular NASA human spaceflight culture and come to the conclusions that it must be modified for success in the future," said Mr. Logsdon.
The board of inquiry made several recommendations to improve shuttle safety. It called for NASA to reduce debris that falls from the shuttle during launch, fortify the orbiter to withstand debris, get better pictures of launches and flights, develop a way to repair damage in orbit, and enhance crew survivability.
NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe said the space agency has already begun putting some of these recommendations into effect, since the board had issued many of them during its probe. "We must choose wisely as we select options to comply with each of those recommendations," said Mr. O'Keefe. "And we must continually improve and upgrade that plan to incorporate every aspect we find in addition to the board's findings in this long road to fixing the problem."
NASA has established a committee of outside experts to monitor its compliance.
The chairman of the inquiry, retired admiral Harold Gehman, said his board calls for other longer-term organizational improvements to NASA that cannot be accomplished in the short-term.
"Over a period of a year or two, the natural tendency of all bureaucracies, not just NASA, to migrate away from that diligent attitude is of great concern to the board because the history of NASA indicates that they have done it before," he said, referring to criticism of the space agency after the shuttle Challenger exploded on liftoff in 1986.
Admiral Gehman says the report should serve as the basis for a national debate about the future of the U.S. space program. He cautioned against replacing the shuttle with an overly sophisticated spacecraft, but rather advised developing a human spaceflight program that is sturdy and within the limits of what the country wants to pay.
The vacationing President George Bush pledged that America's journey into space will go on and that the work of Columbia will continue.