NASA took its most aggressive steps yet Wednesday to reshuffle management of the space shuttle program in the aftermath of the Columbia accident, moving out three key managers at the Johnson Space Center who had direct involvement in the ill-fated mission.
The shakeup follows a series of recent moves that has led to the reassignment of top space shuttle managers and some of the directors of the key centers where the human space flight program is directed.
The moves come as Columbia investigators have heightened their criticism of NASA's top managers and the flawed decisions they made both before and during Columbia's final mission, in which all seven astronauts died.
NASA management had grown complacent in the years preceding the Feb. 1 accident and believed the shuttle was safe until engineers could provide conclusive proof otherwise, the investigators have said.
At the same time, NASA is also coming under increasing congressional pressure to clean house.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), chairman of the House subcommittee on aeronautics and space, said in an interview that he expects the space agency to be accountable and wants to see the key managers who erred in the Columbia mission all the way out of the agency. If NASA does not take action, Rohrabacher said, Congress will.
The space agency said Wednesday that Linda Ham, who was chief of the management team that ran the Columbia mission, would be reassigned to a job not yet specified. Ham had a direct role in concluding that the shuttle was not damaged by foam debris believed to have caused the accident.
As chairman of the team, she was also directly involved in the miscommunication that led NASA to not ask the U.S. Defense Department to use high-powered spy satellites to photograph the Columbia for possible damage during the mission.
NASA also reassigned Ralph R. Roe Jr., manager of the vehicle engineering office, who played a role similar to Ham's. And the agency said Lambert Austin, formerly manager of systems integration, would be reassigned as a technical advisor on the program.
NASA has never made available Ham, Roe or Austin for interviews, despite repeated requests since the Feb. 1 accident.
Although both Congress and investigators have said NASA officials will have to take responsibility for the accident, they have also made clear that the root causes are deeply embedded in NASA's institutional culture and its management practices.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board is expected to deliver later this month a scathing assessment of the shuttle-management system and call for wholesale changes at the agency that are likely to go far beyond the current personnel changes. The report will deal more with those management issues than the direct technical causes of the accident, according to board chairman Harold Gehman Jr.
The staff changes NASA made on Wednesday may quell criticism both in Congress and in the space community that the investigation was failing to hold specific individuals accountable for their actions. The investigating board is conducting most of its interviews behind closed doors, and Gehman has said the contents of those interviews will never be made public.
Space shuttle program manager William W. Parsons disclosed the reassignments Wednesday afternoon, but would not say the individuals were being reassigned as a way of holding them accountable for the Columbia accident.
Parsons earlier took the place of Ron Dittemore, the program director during the accident and the space agency's primary spokesman immediately following the disaster. Dittemore said he had long wanted to leave the program and enter private industry but acknowledged that his departure was in the best interest of creating a new team for returning the shuttle to flight.
Parsons described himself as a former Marine who believes in responsibility and accountability and vowed that he would put an emphasis on that in his style of management. But he also denied that he was holding the three NASA managers accountable for the accident or for contributing to the accident.
In other moves, NASA also named N. Wayne Hale Jr. as acting deputy manager of the space shuttle program. He had served as manager of launch integration at Kennedy Space Center since February.
Hale, who joined Johnson Space Center in 1978, had taken an internal role of urging the mission management team to ask the Defense Department to take photographs during Columbia's final mission.
NASA had created a debris-assessment team of 40 engineers during the mission after cameras at Kennedy Space Center detected a 1.6 pound block of foam falling off the shuttle's external tank and striking the orbiter's left wing at about 82 seconds after launch.
It was the largest piece of foam debris ever to strike the orbiter, and there was immediate concern. But the recommendation to ask that the photographs be taken was never followed, apparently because of an internal miscommunication with the Johnson Space Center, according to Columbia investigators.
It is now believed that the foam damaged the delicate leading edge panels of the left wing, allowing superheated gases to melt the wing and ultimately cause the shuttle to break up over Texas.
In addition to Hale, NASA named four other middle level engineers to new jobs at Johnson: Steve Poulos, to acting manager of the orbiter project office; Edward Mango, to deputy manager of the orbiter project office; John Shannon, to acting manager for flight operations; and John Muratore, to manager in the systems integration office.
Earlier, NASA also reassigned Kennedy Space Center director Roy Bridges to its Langley Research Center.