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3 Astronauts Question NASA Safety Concerns

March 12, 1986|MAURA DOLAN | Times Staff Writer

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Three additional astronauts questioned the space agency's attention to flight safety Tuesday, and the release of another memo from chief astronaut John W. Young showed there had been concern that schedule pressures would compromise safety even before the Challenger disaster.

As efforts to recover the remains of the shuttle Challenger crew members continued, astronaut Michael L. Coats, in a telephone interview, said that he was not even aware that critical rocket seals had been damaged on a shuttle he flew in 1984 until he read about it in the newspaper several days ago. Investigators suspect that failure of such a seal caused the Jan. 28 Challenger explosion.

'Would Have Been Nice'

"It would have been nice to know about that," Coats said.

Coats said the astronauts want an overview of the whole shuttle system, even if it takes three years before flights are resumed, and want to be informed of potential equipment problems in the future.

"You need to be aware of any problems that may occur . . . " he said.

In the past, he said, astronauts have received little information about potential problems outside the orbiter itself and felt complete confidence that NASA would not launch if it were unsafe.

But, since the accident, he said, "I'm concerned that some people may have felt schedule pressure and let it influence their decisions . . . ."

In television appearances, astronauts Vance D. Brand and C. Gordon Fullerton said they also have worried that schedule pressure might compromise safety.

Fullerton, who has flown two shuttle flights, said on NBC's "Today" show that astronauts have felt that "the pendulum had swung a little too far on the side of those who were trying to maintain the schedule."

He traced the pressures to the space program's attempts last year to launch once a month.

"We started to see more attention placed on getting the current flight off so that we could turn around and be ready to fly the next one," he said. "That pressure gradually increased up to the present time."

Brand said he agreed with chief astronaut Young's complaint in a memorandum made public Saturday that astronauts were lucky to be alive because of what Young called an awesome list of safety flaws.

"Although John came on very strong, I do agree with him," Brand said on ABC's "Good Morning America." "We do have to be concerned with safety over all."

The memorandum from Young released Tuesday made clear that concern that launching-schedule pressures could compromise flight safety had existed for some time. His memo, dated Jan. 6, warned the agency that its policy of landing orbiters at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla., instead of Edwards Air Force Base posed a "significantly higher probability of costing NASA orbiters and killing flight crews . . . ."

Young "urgently recommended" that NASA return to using Edwards in California as the standard landing field. In 1984, NASA had begun to land shuttles at the cape when possible to save the cost of transporting them back from California and to reduce turnaround time between launchings.

In his memo to flight crew director George W.S. Abbey, Young vehemently complained that the condition and size of the cape's runway, coupled with unpredictable cape weather, substantially increased the risk of accidents.

"When that happens," he said, "the alleged five days of turnaround saved will be a sorry gain for the overall loss or damage to orbiter, its crew and the space shuttle program."

Although landing at the cape "may be wonderful political policy, it is not an intelligent technical policy," he said.

In response to the memo, a NASA spokesman cited continuing studies to determine if safety can be improved. "We are all interested in making that happen," he said.

In the midst of such concerns by astronauts, a member of the presidential commission investigating the Challenger disaster predicted that the panel would require that flight crews participate in future launching decisions.

The commissioner, who asked not to be identified, said in an interview that he found it "unbelievable" that astronauts had not been informed of critical safety problems in the past.

"There isn't an airplane that takes to the air that doesn't have some idiosyncrasies in it, and the pilots are always informed of them," the commissioner said. "But, at NASA, it seems, it is just so compartmentalized that the information is not shared."

Meanwhile, Tuesday, divers returned to sea to retrieve the "torn up" crew compartment of the Challenger amid hopes that a newly discovered piece of debris may be part of the booster suspected of causing the explosion.

Space agency officials continued to refuse to comment on the work of pathologists brought here to examine the remains. A spokesman for a Washington-based military institute that has provided NASA with the medical examiners predicted that it would be "at least" weeks before the remains are identified and the cause of death is determined.

Coats said that the cabin wreckage is about half the size of the normal crew compartment.

"All we've been told is that it's a 10-foot by 30-foot by 6-foot chunk and it's pretty well torn up," Coats said.

Marty Resnik, a cousin of astronaut Judith A. Resnik, one of the Challenger crew, said that NASA has kept the family "fully informed" of the recovery operation. He said the family has been told that the remains are in pieces and some have been brought to shore.

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