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Investigators Want Big Changes at NASA

May 21, 2003|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

NASA was put on notice Tuesday that Columbia investigators are preparing to recommend sweeping changes at the agency, going well beyond the breadth of reforms that came in the aftermath of the Challenger accident 17 years ago.

Columbia Accident Investigation Board chairman Harold Gehman Jr. said the recommendations will address a dozen areas of NASA's management practices, safety systems and bureaucratic culture, as well as the specific technical causes of the shuttle accident on Feb. 1.

Gehman said the board will insist that NASA find ways to prevent foam debris from falling off the shuttle's external tank during launch and slamming into the orbiter.

Investigators disclosed Tuesday that foam debris has fallen off the shuttle tanks more frequently than previously known. The investigators have found that large pieces of foam broke off the attachment pods on seven of 70 missions, according to board member Rear Adm. Stephen Turcotte. In addition, smaller pieces of foam fall off during every flight, causing small craters and dents in the orbiter's heat-shielding tiles.

The piece of foam that fell on Columbia was the largest in the history of the shuttle program and it fell off relatively late in the launch, increasing the speed of the impact, Turcotte said. Still, the board has no conclusive proof that the foam damaged the Columbia's wing and caused the accident.

Separately, the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., the NASA facility responsible for the shuttle's external tank that is at the center of the Columbia accident investigation, resigned Tuesday, saying he wants to clear the way for new management.

Arthur Stephenson, the Marshall director, has not been faulted in the Columbia accident, and NASA spokesman Glenn Mahone said his resignation is not linked to criticism by investigators of NASA's management.

Stephenson will become special assistant to NASA's associate administrator for education and plans to retire from NASA in January. He is the second senior official to leave NASA since the accident, following shuttle director Ron Dittemore.

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