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Top-Level Report Cited Safety Fears

The Nation | The Columbia Disaster

Former NASA official who warned of faulty wiring, corrosion says agency didn't follow up.

February 04, 2003|Ralph Vartabedian and Peter Pae | Times Staff Writers

A top-level NASA report three years ago warned that the space shuttle fleet was facing serious safety problems, including faulty wiring on the ill-fated Columbia and corrosion on all the orbiters, but the agency failed to carry out many of the key recommendations, according to a former senior NASA official.

The recommendations raised alarms about crucial shuttle safety issues, such as sloppy workmanship, lost paperwork and reduced inspections of heat protection tiles, the component that is a focus of the Columbia crash investigation. The report also cited inadequate inspection staffs and the problem of physically strained workers reporting a high use of hypertension drugs.

Several studies critical of shuttle safety have come to light since Saturday's accident, but this March 2000 assessment contains the most detailed documentation of potential problems. It also was produced under the authority of one of NASA's highest-ranking officials.

The author of the report, Henry McDonald, former director of NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., said Monday in an interview that the space agency let him go two months ago when top officials elected not to renew his employment contract. He has since returned to the engineering department faculty at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

It is unclear whether his advocacy on shuttle safety led to his dismissal, but the report's criticism of personnel cutbacks on the shuttle program and his advocacy for reforms in shuttle management contradicted the policies of NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, he said.

NASA officials said Monday that most of McDonald's findings were put into a so-called action plan, which they said was not immediately available. Nonetheless, they said this action plan has been carried out, though it is unclear to what extent recommended changes occurred.

NASA officials said plans include new training for employees to inspect wiring systems and improving the exchange of data with other government agencies. They declined to comment on the reasons for McDonald's departure. But McDonald said other NASA officials had downplayed his findings and acted on only a few of the more than 100 recommendations.

The report was sent to various NASA research centers and to the space shuttle office, where staffers argued they had already taken care of issues in McDonald's report or that he did not understand their processes.

"Do I think the recommendations were followed appropriately? No, I don't. It is clear to me that the cost got in the way," McDonald said. "I wasn't too happy about it, but it wasn't our duty to police the recommendation."

Whether the report identified issues that could have prevented the Columbia loss is unclear, because the crash investigation is at a preliminary stage and little is known about the fundamental causes. NASA officials said Monday they are searching for a "missing link" that would help explain some of the conflicting information about the accident.

During the 1990s, a growing number of investigations focused on shuttle safety, including examinations by the General Accounting Office, the inspector general and Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

Although outside groups had expressed growing concerns about budget reductions in the program, McDonald's recommendations were far more extensive and represented the agency's own leadership raising a red flag. Ames is one of NASA's eight major research centers, and McDonald's role as center director placed him among the senior leadership.

A separate 1997 report by a NASA inspector -- cited on the agency's Web site -- detailed concerns about the potential impact of insulation debris on shuttle tiles.

McDonald said efforts to quash his report went even further, with NASA officials attempting to persuade the agency's technical staff to disagree with the conclusions.

"They called in a number of people we interviewed, and while there was no overt pressure, it was clear to the technicians that there was only one right answer if they wanted to keep their job," McDonald said. The investigating team subsequently received calls from employees at NASA's Michoud, La., and Palmdale facilities complaining about their treatment.

McDonald's recommendations were first reviewed by then-NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin and former NASA chief engineer W. Brian Keegan. Keegan said in an interview Monday that the report, which he described as "far-reaching," was discussed and debated intensely among top managers before it was sent to shuttle managers.

"It's fair to say that they were comprehensive recommendations and that they had potentially significant implications," said Keegan, a 36-year NASA veteran who retired last April.

But Keegan said the recommendations came at a time when the agency was under pressure to cut costs, which included having to reduce personnel. "The question was not whether we should do something but how do you do it," Keegan said.

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