After the Tragedy

Columbia accident puts NASA in the hot seat

“We get it.” Those are the words that NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe recited over and over again at congressional hearings earlier this month, as if they were the can-do agency’s new mantra. O’Keefe was responding to scathing criticism in the late-August report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. But several space historians and scientists, including former NASA employees, say that neither O’Keefe nor his agency is truly getting it.

SHUTTLE REDUX? NASA says it’s uncertain when the next shuttle will fly.

Although the board concluded that loose insulation foam caused the demise of the Columbia shuttle and its seven-member crew last February, the panel also pointed a finger at what it regarded as NASA’s culture of complacency. An admission of guilt and a solemn promise to follow the board’s recommendations aren’t enough to keep the agency from repeating past mistakes, the critics say. NASA’s initial “return-to-flight” plan, with a stated goal of making needed repairs and organizational changes so that the remaining three shuttles can begin flying again as early as next March, was really a rush to return to business as usual, says historian Alex Roland of Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Last week, NASA announced it might not be ready to test-fly the shuttle until next summer because it didn’t know when it could meet one of the board’s key recommendations–having an in-flight repair kit to patch large holes in the shuttle surface.

The accident report was “excellent” at describing what led to the Columbia disaster, says Roland. But the report doesn’t address, and NASA officials still aren’t confronting, whether human space flight should continue and, if it does, what its destinations should be, he adds.

The United States has lost 17 astronauts in space accidents, including two shuttle disasters 17 years apart.

Historian Robert Smith of the University of Alberta in Edmonton notes that one of NASA’s dilemmas is that the shuttle is the only vehicle the agency has to continue ferrying crew members and materials to the multibillion-dollar International Space Station.

Given the number of international partners who have invested in the space station, ditching it is no longer an option, says Wesley T. Huntress of the Carnegie Institution of Washington (D.C.), who was associate administrator for the agency’s space science program from 1992 to 1998. “It’s not our space station, it’s the world’s, and we have an obligation to complete it,” he asserts.

Delays in shuttle flights during the 1990s pushed back the projected completion of the space station to 2007 and increased costs just as NASA’s budget was being cut. Those setbacks led to a NASA mentality that almost no flaw encountered could stop or cut short a shuttle flight, notes historian Howard E. McCurdy of American University in Washington, D.C. McCurdy speculates that that outlook led NASA managers to accept the contractors’ assessment that the chunk of foam hitting Columbia’s left wing on takeoff–which engineers spotted on film the next day–was of little consequence.

Toward the future

Since the 1980s, NASA and its contractors have proposed a multitude of vehicles to replace the shuttle, but all the designs have been scrapped (SN: 4/5/03, p. 215: Building a Better Shuttle). Before any shuttle is flown again, McCurdy says, NASA must begin building an alterative; otherwise, “it never will.”

Huntress says that a space capsule like the capsules flown during the Apollo missions and still flown by the Russian-Soyuz cosmonauts could safely and simply ferry crews to and from the space station. Despite the capsule’s excellent safety record, he says, enthusiasm for a high-tech, winged vehicle–underpinning what Huntress calls NASA’s “joystick culture”–has buoyed support for the shuttle.

The agency should commit to retiring the entire fleet after a limited number of new flights, says McCurdy. “It ought to be inscribed on the front of the [agency’s] building that the last shuttle will be flown by date XX,” he asserts.

Another factor besides NASA’s culture may have played a role in Columbia’s demise, McCurdy says. The agency no longer has the in-house technological resources to check and recheck the many tests used to certify flights and to troubleshoot. To lower its costs, the agency farmed out many of those functions to the same contractors that built the equipment.

Roland, who worked at NASA headquarters from 1973 to 1981, says he’s heartened that the accident board plans to reconvene in a year to see whether NASA has followed through on its safety promises. Less encouraging, he says, is that the panel appointed by NASA to oversee the agency’s progress consists largely of current and past agency employees.

That panel’s cochair, former astronaut Richard O. Covey, recently announced that his committee couldn’t yet determine when shuttles would be ready to fly again. He notes that the agency has yet to devise a detailed plan for an independent safety and engineering organization within NASA.

“Maintaining vigilance over the long term won’t be easy,” says Roland. With NASA’s every move now under scrutiny, “it won’t be the first flight after Columbia that will have the problem–it might be the one 5 years from now,” he predicts.


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