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NASA Tightens Shuttle Program Control

November 06, 1986|RUDY ABRAMSON | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — One of the top officials involved in the ill-fated decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger last January was named director of the shuttle program Wednesday as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration moved to bring future manned space flights under tighter control of its headquarters in Washington.

Adopting a management structure similar to that which it had during the era of Apollo flights to the moon, space agency officials said that Arnold Aldrich would move from the Johnson Space Center in Houston and take "full responsibility and authority for the operation and conduct" of the shuttle program.

At the same time, astronaut Robert L. Crippen, a veteran of four shuttle flights, was selected as one of Aldrich's two deputies and named to directly oversee flight operations, including the preparation of shuttles for launch.

Prefers Management Post

There had been widespread speculation that Crippen, a Navy captain, would command the first flight when the shuttle, with its modified solid booster rockets, is cleared for launch again, a liftoff now scheduled for February, 1988. But he told reporters Wednesday that he considered the management post "the most positive contribution I can make . . . ."

Aldrich's promotion from his job as shuttle program manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston came after the retirement and reassignment of several top officials who had been in positi1869509408was made to launch the Challenger flight.

Seven crew members were killed as the spacecraft was enveloped in a fireball high over the Florida coast.

During the intense investigation of the accident by a presidential commission, Aldrich testified that he had not been told of serious questions raised the night before concerning the safety of launching the mission in weather far colder than anything experienced on previous launches. The cold temperatures were linked to the failure of O-ring seals that led to the explosion.

Aims at 'Parochialism'

Deputy NASA Administrator Dale Myers said that, besides clearing lines of authority and strengthening communications within the shuttle program, the new management organization is designed to "reduce the parochialism" that develops at major NASA field centers that have historically competed for position.

The presidential investigating commission recommended at the conclusion of its accident probe last June that NASA headquarters take more direct responsibility for flight operations to reduce the competition and conflicting interests between the field centers, particularly the Johnson center in Houston and the Marshall Space Flight Center at Huntsville, Ala.

Since shortly after the accident, the NASA recovery program--including the redesign of the flawed solid booster rockets--and planning for resumed operations has been under the direction of Rear Adm. Richard Truly, the space agency's associate administrator for space flight.

Under the new arrangement, Truly will turn his attention to the overall management of manned flight activities, and Aldrich will report to him.

Aldrich's second deputy, who will be in charge of shuttle program activities not directly concerning flight operations, will be Richard H. Kohrs, now deputy manager of the space transportation system at the Johnson center.

Reports Differ

The move to strengthen headquarters control of the program came as the House Science and Technology Committee made public a report growing out of its own investigation of the Challenger tragedy.

The congressional panel differed somewhat with the presidential commission headed by former Secretary of State William P. Rogers in its view of the ultimate cause of the tragedy. The Rogers commission stressed a breakdown in communications the night before the launch and specifically, the failure of rocket engineers at Marshall center to inform top management that technical experts at Morton Thiokol Inc., had serious reservations about launching in the cold weather.

But the House panel's report concluded that "the fundamental problem was poor technical decision-making over a period of several years by top NASA and contractor personnel, who failed to act decisively to solve the increasingly serious anomalies in the solid rocket booster joints."

Transcripts contained in the report also showed that the leader of a NASA "ice team" that went to the launch pad early in the morning before liftoff had advised officials preparing for launch: "Well, I'd say that only choice you got today is not to go."

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