Shuttle report to dissect NASA management

Thursday, July 17, 2003 at 1:00am

NASA and the nation have some big questions to answer before the United States restarts its space shuttle program.

It is becoming abundantly clear that there are major safety issues that NASA must resolve in the wake of the Columbia disaster.

Last week, investigators for the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) fired a hunk of foam from a cannon at 500 mph to simulate what impact it would have on a reconstructed wing of the shuttle. It blew a gaping hole in the wing.

Engineers who had expressed concern about the foam after the Columbia's launch earlier this year were told that the foam posed no threat to the mission.

Investigators now believe the foam damaged the shuttle's heat shield, allowing super-heated gas to penetrate the wing.

In the report to be issued by the CAIB in August, there will apparently be some very critical findings about NASA safety procedures, budgeting and management. And NASA announced this week it plans a safety center at its Langley, Va., facility.

Here are some questions that need asking:

  • Should NASA redesign its entire shuttle fleet rather than keep pumping repair money into the present aging spaceships? It is now clear that shuttle pilots must have some way of inspecting their ship should another accident occur while the ship is in space and that they must have some mechanism for escape.
  • What kind of management culture at NASA prevented the alarm from sounding more loudly after the foam incident, and how does that culture extend to other areas of the agency?
  • What is the purpose of manned space flight, and is it truly too dangerous to justify? We think this last question needs to be asked not because humankind shouldn't be in space but because we need to challenge our basic assumptions about manned space flight to make some critical changes in the shuttle program.

    Just as in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, when we found critical communication problems between federal and local law enforcement agencies, the CAIB's report may note similar internal problems at NASA.

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