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Skeptics Question US Space Agency's Ability to Reform - 2003-08-27


The head of the U.S. space agency NASA vows to fix management problems that contributed to the loss of the shuttle Columbia in February. A board of inquiry said Tuesday that NASA does not have a strong culture of safety and is not organized to operate the orbiter safely. But skeptics wonder if NASA can reform.

Fixing NASA is the chief task agency administrator Sean O'Keefe faces before a space shuttle flies again. He has been given his direction by a panel of investigators who have determined that NASA's internal culture is as much at fault for Columbia's demise as was the wing accident during launch that doomed its reentry.

The board concluded that NASA management helped cause the accident because it is insular, rigid, and stifling of dissent. Board member John Logsdon, director of the George Washington University Space Policy Institute, says NASA developed this culture during the heady days of the early space program when it had a big budget for its race to the moon against the Soviet Union.

"NASA came to think of itself as a unique, almost perfect place that really didn't have to get information from the outside because all the competence was inside NASA," he said. "That was a long time ago, but the culture hasn't fundamentally changed."

Now, the board of inquiry, led by retired Admiral Harold Gehman, says NASA must change if it is to avoid another shuttle mishap. Agency administrator Sean O'Keefe says he is following the recommendations precisely.

"We get it - clearly got the point. There is just no question that what we need to do is to examine the principles and the values that we adhere to as a means to improve safety objectives as well as the larger task before us of exploring and discovering on behalf of the American people," he said.

Among other things, the investigators recommend that NASA establish strong internal authorities to ensure that safety standards are met and that they have the power to stop shuttle launches if safety concerns are unresolved. The recommendations reflect the fact that NASA management ignored engineers' worries when Columbia's wing was damaged during launch and did nothing to try to fix the problem during the flight.

But to former NASA historian Alex Roland, now at Duke University, the present situation is a disturbing echo of the 1986 explosion of the shuttle Challenger, which was investigated by a board called the Rogers Commission.

"Many of the recommendations made by the Rogers Commission either hadn't been enacted at all by NASA or had been enacted and then allowed to erode over the years," he said. "The reason for that is there was no independent oversight checking on them. The Gehman Commission does not recommend an independent external oversight mechanism to ensure that NASA really does what the commission is recommending."

The former head of Mars exploration at NASA, Donna Shirley, also told a PBS television interviewer that culture change at NASA will be difficult for another reason. The agency is decentralized.

"What you have is very powerful centers scattered around the country with very powerful constituencies of congressional delegations and the industry that is around those centers," she said. "They have a lot of clout with being able to influence the budget. Whether or not they are going to be tractable in terms of any changes that NASA headquarters would like to make is not clear."

But the board of inquiry also implied culpability on the part of politicians over the years, for underfunding NASA. The shuttle budget declined 40 percent during the 1990s at a time when flights to the international space station boosted demands on it. Ms. Shirley says NASA did not cut back accordingly, providing little margin to spend on safety.

"NASA tries to do everything and just hopes they are somehow going to get the resources to do it and they've just never gotten the resources," she said.

The shuttle board of inquiry has called for a national debate on the future of human space flight. Panelist John Logsdon says money should be central to the discussion. "We cannot do human space flight on the cheap. It's too risky. We should do it right," he said.