WASHINGTON — The senior members of NASA's astronaut corps Thursday called for appointment of a safety organization independent of shuttle program management as the first line of defense against another space accident like the Jan. 28 Challenger tragedy.
William P. Rogers, chairman of the presidential commission that is investigating the catastrophe, said the idea of a safety panel has already been taken under consideration by the commission, and he indicated that it will be among the recommendations to the President when the investigation is completed.
He urged the astronauts to submit more specific suggestions on the proposed panel's organization and its operations.
In appearances before the commission Thursday, four veteran shuttle commanders said that the new organization should be comparable to military flight safety organizations, with oversight throughout flight operations and having an independent chain of command.
Chief astronaut John W. Young called for a "foolproof" system to zero in on safety problems and declared, "Unless we take very positive steps to open safety communications and to identify and fix early-on safety problems, we are asking for another shuttle accident."
The appearance of Young and the other astronauts moved the presidential commission into its final phase, an effort to shape recommendations to avert another space accident like the Challenger explosion, which killed seven crew members and brought the American space program to a standstill for at least a year.
When the panel was named in the wake of the tragedy, President Reagan ordered it not only to produce a finding of probable cause for the accident but to recommend remedial steps that should be taken before shuttle flights are resumed.
Within the first few weeks of the accident, investigators had sharply focused their attention on a failure in Challenger's right solid rocket booster, but Rogers said that he was also convinced that the space agency's launching process had been fundamentally "flawed" in the Challenger case.
Young appeared to agree indirectly, telling the commission, "I have the feeling that the very biggest problem that must be solved before the space shuttle flies again is communication."
Commission member Richard P. Feynman agreed that "the problem is communication and that communication will be fixed if you have the safety panel, if there is a member of the astronauts on the safety panel, because then you'll be fully aware of all the things that are unsafe."
"An argument is always given that last time it worked," said Feynman, a physicist at Caltech. "It's a kind of Russian roulette. There was a risk, but you got away with it. But it shouldn't be done over and over again. When I look at the reviews, I find perpetual movement heading for trouble."
The astronauts called also for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to abandon Florida's Kennedy Space Center as a primary shuttle landing site and to confine landings to Edwards Air Force Base in California, even though several days would be lost after each mission in transporting the orbiter back to its Florida launching site.
Florida Dangers Cited
Young, along with astronauts Robert L. Crippen, Paul J. Weitz and Henry W. Hartsfield, expressed concerns over both the unpredictability of Florida weather and the danger of the shuttle's running off of the 15,000-foot runway if it experienced a brake failure, ruptured tires or an imprecise touchdown.
The chief astronaut set off an intense controversy last month when he wrote a memorandum bluntly charging that management had sacrificed flight safety in order to maintain the program's demanding launching schedules.
Although he moderated his tone in his appearance before the commission Thursday, Young stuck to his position that safety has sometimes been compromised in the shuttle program.
"I wonder sometimes why, if the space shuttle is inherently risky, why we should accept more avoidable risks," he said, "and we do that sometimes. Or to reduce operating costs, and that has been proposed. We just cannot afford to have another accident. We cannot."
Failure of Seal
After investigators zeroed in on failure of a seal between segments of one of the shuttle's solid rocket boosters as the probable cause of the accident, astronauts complained that they had not been informed of earlier indications of trouble with the seals.
Crippen told the panel Thursday that he had taken part in a flight readiness review before the Challenger flight in which it was mentioned that hot gas had escaped from an O-ring seal in a previous flight. "In truth," Crippen said, "from my perception, it was not that much of a big deal--I didn't see catastrophe before us."
The astronaut said he had no idea that NASA officials had placed the O-ring assembly on the list of "criticality 1" items, meaning that a single failure in flight would lead to the loss of the spacecraft and its crew.
'Hasty Fixes' Opposed
But, although the shuttle veterans emphasized tightened safety precautions, Hartsfield, a veteran of three shuttle missions, warned against "hasty fixes." He called for a complete review of the shuttle design, but at the same time he said he is "concerned that the cure may be worse than the illness."
Aside from redesigning the joints between segments of the shuttle's solid rocket boosters, shuttle modifications under consideration include equipping the orbiter crew compartment with escape modules or a bail-out system.
Young said that it would be possible to equip the shuttles with an escape system, but he and the other astronauts expressed reservations about the practicality of refitting the three remaining shuttles.