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Report 'Won't Pull' Punches but May Sidestep Key Issues

August 26, 2003|Ralph Vartabedian and Peter Pae | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Columbia accident investigators say their final report will contain few surprises when it is issued today, concluding that foam debris caused the Feb. 1 tragedy and that NASA's management structure played a role in the miscalculations leading up to the shuttle crash.

But the report by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board is still likely to contain recommendations that could shake up the human spaceflight program and employ uncharacteristically tough language critical of the space agency.

"It's been advertised as hard hitting and I think it will match the advertisement," John M. Logsdon, an accident board member, said in an interview Monday. "We won't pull any punches."

The report is likely to address many shuttle problems, pushing NASA to speed up replacement of the aged fleet, increase inspections by quality controllers and pay closer attention to its engineers who have safety concerns.

But the report will sidestep some contentious issues, such as providing a crew ejection system for astronauts. The board probably will not call upon NASA to redesign the shuttle's external tank to ensure that foam does not fall off. And it is not likely to cast harsh criticism on Congress for failing to adequately fund the space program, critics say.

"If one could fault NASA, it would be for being willing to do more with less," said Richard Blomberg, the former chairman of NASA's independent safety advisory board. "Everybody is jumping to judgment too quickly. I looked at NASA's culture for 15 years and it is the most safety-conscious organization I have ever seen."

Other experts are also skeptical about whether the accident report will be powerful enough to trigger major reforms.

"This could turn out to be a Hollywood script -- lots of good stuff goes into writing it but then it is turned into a bad movie," said Howard E. McCurdy, a space historian at American University who has advised the investigation panel.

Although the board has issued five preliminary recommendations on technical issues so far, board Chairman Harold Gehman Jr. has given few hints about other recommendations.

In Gehman's highly praised investigation of the attack on the Cole in Yemen, he made 45 recommendations that called for broad reforms of U.S. military intelligence. If that is any guide, the Columbia report is likely to lay out an expansive agenda for changing the very organization of NASA.

"There will be a fairly long list of recommendations, some of which are related to return to flight," said Logsdon, the board member. "We'll say some things of what the nation should do about replacing the shuttle.

"It really focuses on the shuttle program. We don't say anything about the value of human space flight, or whether the space station should exist. We look at the physical and organizational causes of the shuttle accident and what to do to prevent it from happening. Ninety-five percent of the report is about the shuttle."

But Charles Vick, a senior space analyst for GlobalSecurity.org, voiced deep skepticism about the report, saying that the recommendations are likely to "fall short of what really needs to be done" and that many of the recommendations are likely to hit significant resistance from Congress and the White House.

"This administration doesn't have the funding available to do everything that is needed. Nobody is willing to pay to get the job done," Vick said.

Don Nelson, a retired NASA engineer, also criticized the board for failing to recommend a crew escape system.

"How in the world they could not have investigated the crew escape issue from the beginning is beyond all reasonable logic," Nelson said. "I believe this board may now be as guilty as the NASA management."

But others remained more positive about what the report can accomplish.

"The board has been very comprehensive and very diligent," said Allen Li, a NASA expert at the General Accounting Office. "So, I am optimistic about them being able to bring some light to the whole issue."

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