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NASA expecting deeply critical report

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Bracing for a highly critical Columbia accident report, NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe is telling space workers the investigation board's rebuke of key management decisions should be viewed as a roadmap for safe return to orbit -- not as a "personal affront."

One member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board said the report "will dig deep into the so-called culture" of NASA and address deeper and broader problems that go beyond the management decisions linked to the accident.

In preliminary releases, the board already has criticized some management decisions during Columbia's last flight. It has called for new rules requiring spy satellite pictures of the shuttle in orbit and for development of a way to do repairs in orbit of heat shield damage that might occur during launch. O'Keefe has said the agency will follow each of the board's recommendations.

Some call for restrictions

Some members of Congress anticipating the accident report, due to be released this morning, are calling for restrictions on the use of the space shuttle and for establishment of a permanent board, appointed by Congress, to monitor the human spaceflight program.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board concludes seven months of inquiry with a report detailing how the shuttle was destroyed and analyzing management and engineering decisions that led to the accident.

Seven astronauts died Feb. 1 when Columbia disintegrated over Texas while returning from a 16-day orbital mission. Investigators determined that heat shield panels in the spacecraft's wing were probably broken during launch by the high-speed impact of foam insulation that broke off the external fuel tank.

In hearings, the board learned that NASA managers accepted with few questions a flawed engineering assessment of the possible damage. Managers also failed to order spy satellite photos of Columbia to look for damage, even though some low-level engineers recommended that.

In an interview Monday, O'Keefe said the report "is going to have no fuzz on it, no gloves. It is going to be straightforward."

He said he is concerned about NASA morale and is telling space workers "we need to not be defensive about that and try to not take it as a personal affront."

O'Keefe said hearings by the board "have been tough, very pointed" and he expects the report to be equally tough.

"I fully expect the report to be as comprehensive as we have heard in the course of their deliberations," he told The Associated Press. "It will help us chart a course and make this a stronger organization."

O'Keefe warned earlier this summer, in remarks to workers at the Kennedy Space Center, that the report will be "really ugly" and that they should prepare themselves.

John Logsdon, a member of the board, said Monday the board believes "its criticism is founded on careful evidence, gathered in an intense way over seven months. So, if NASA views it as ugly, it needs to look at itself."

'May be some surprises'

Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said the report "will dig deep into the so-called culture," adding that "the language is frank and direct and there may be some surprises."

Some in Congress said the second accident in just 113 space shuttle flights has caused a re-evaluation and a closer scrutiny of America's human spaceflight program in general, and the future of the shuttle in particular. A faulty rocket seal caused the destruction of space shuttle Challenger and the death of seven astronauts in 1986.

"People are not going to be taking what NASA says at face value," said David Goldston, chief of staff of the House Science Committee, the principle NASA watchdog in Congress.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., chairman of the House subcommittee on space, said the Columbia accident report "will necessitate not only a reexamination of our technical decisions but also our organizational decisions in the past."

He said the accident board chairman, Adm. Hal Gehman, "has made it very clear that there are disturbing questions about the shuttle being riskier and more costly than has been presented to decision makers years ago."

"In the past, the astronauts may have been aware of the risk, but the rest of us were not aware of just how risky it was," said Rohrabacher. "We knew it was dangerous, but most members thought it was less risky than it has turned out to be."

The California congressman said his committee will consider restricting the use of the space shuttle in order to lower the dangers.

Another subcommittee member, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, has said the shuttle is too dangerous and should be grounded permanently.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, of Maryland, senior Democrat on the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA, said she will introduce legislation to create a permanent, independent committee of experts to monitor the space agency.

She wants a 15-member board, selected by the House and Senate leadership, that will assure compliance with all the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which Mikulski calls the Gehman commission. She said the board would report to Congress every six months.

"This means the Gehman commission would not be a one-shot deal," she said.


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