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Columbia Report Places NASA's Future Up in the Air

Weeks after a damning review by investigators, there is little consensus on central issues: safety, use of the shuttle and the agency's overall vision.

September 21, 2003|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

NASA is facing the daunting task of self-preservation during the next year as it works to resume space shuttle flights and redress the serious defects in the nation's human space program laid bare by the Columbia accident.

The space program is in deep trouble, hobbled by a lack of vision, a flawed management culture and obsolete spacecraft that need to be replaced as soon as possible, according to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report released nearly a month ago.

To fix those problems and obtain a political consensus about why the space program even exists will be a lot tougher than NASA or anybody had imagined in the wake of the Feb. 1 accident that destroyed the $2-billion Columbia and killed seven astronauts.

"We have a lot of challenges ahead of us," acknowledged Wayne Hale, deputy director of the space shuttle program. "It is very risky."

So far, there is little agreement on many central issues, such as whether the shuttle can ever be safely flown, what kind of future spacecraft will fly into orbit and whether NASA should be given a new goal such as sending humans to Mars.

"The process is moving very slowly," said W. Henry Lambright, a space expert at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. "There are a lot of people who will want to put off all of the decisions."

NASA itself underestimated even the engineering challenge ahead. Not long after the Columbia accident, NASA said it hoped to determine the cause and resume flights by August. Step by step, the agency has pushed back the resumption of its shuttle operations to December and then to March. Last week, NASA acknowledged that it was again too ambitious and that next summer might be the earliest opportunity to launch.

Once flights resume, the first two missions will be dedicated to testing new procedures to inspect and repair shuttles in space, requirements that were set by the accident board.

What's more, some of the other recommendations are proving so tough technically that NASA may not be able to meet all of them, shuttle managers said last week in Houston.

One concern is the requirement to repair the shuttle wing's reinforced carbon leading edges, which were damaged in the Columbia launch last January.

At stake is the future of the human space program, one of the most prominent symbols of U.S. technology and economic leadership for more than 40 years. Experts say the space program has three major issues facing it that must be addressed over the next year: shuttle safety, a new vision for the space program and a decision about replacing the shuttle.

Focus on Safety

The accident report made 29 recommendations aimed at improving space shuttle safety, involving both specific technical defects and improving what investigators called NASA's flawed culture.

Although critics acknowledge that the fixes will help improve the system's safety and that NASA's culture needs change, they say the shuttle is inherently unsafe and that only a massive engineering effort and modernization can prevent accidents. Experts, such as former NASA safety advisor Richard Blomberg, say the shuttle badly needs safety upgrades and investment.

The critics -- who include a broad cross-section of lawmakers, policy analysts and retired NASA officials -- also complain the space program is being run by astronauts and bureaucrats, not the engineers who pioneered rocket technology and once ran the operation.

The Columbia was damaged by foam debris that fell off its external tank during launch. Investigators believe that NASA knew enough about the threat by late last year to have grounded the fleet and redesigned the external tank.

The problem with that conclusion, some experts say, is that such an approach will virtually assure that the shuttle is repeatedly grounded, because there are potentially hundreds of safety problems and it is impossible to know which specific ones couldcause an accident. Such an approach would destroy the space program, said Charles Vick, a space policy expert and a former NASA engineer.

Brig. Gen. Duane Deal, an accident board member and one of the Air Force's top space commanders, acknowledged in an interview that the shuttle has many potential safety problems and that it will be difficult for NASA to stop operations every time it perceives a risk.

At best, NASA can attempt to calculate its risks and then determine whether they are acceptable, Deal said, rather than simply accepting risks without calculating them as he believes they did before the Columbia launch.

In a special appendix, Deal outlined dozens of specific problems, but his comments lack the power of actual recommendations. Deal said he is concerned that NASA is not going to follow many of the important findings and observations throughout the accident report and his appendix.

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