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Report Questions Some NASA Procedures


A panel has released its final report on the effort to get the space shuttles flying again. The report gave mostly high marks to NASA, but an appendix to that report is more cautious. In it, some of the authors say their personal view is that, "the space agency is still suffering from a cycle of smugness substituting for knowledge." That's a quote. They also say the space agency sometimes suffered the same problems that led to the Columbia accident two and a half years ago. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.


The independent panel was convened by NASA after the Columbia accident, and before the space shuttle Discovery lifted off late last month, the group said there were no show-stopping concerns. It ruled that NASA had successfully completed 12 of 15 recommended safety improvements. Richard Covey is a veteran astronaut who co-chaired the panel. Covey says his own view is that NASA is doing a reasonable job of correcting problems in the shuttle program.

Mr. RICHARD COVEY (Panel Member): They're approaching the risk and the acceptance of risk in an appropriate manner. You have to go fly to learn a lot of things that we learned on this flight.

KESTENBAUM: Not all the task force members felt so strongly. NASA requested personal observations in an appendix. Some were quite short, a paragraph or a page. Then there is appendix A2. Seven of the 26 members signed off on it. They wrote for 20 pages and were clearly disappointed. Quote, "It appears to us that lessons that should have been learned have not been. Perhaps we expected or hoped for too much." Those authors include a former astronaut, two management experts, an engineer, a former head of the Congressional Budget Office and a former Navy undersecretary.

The group gives a few examples of why they were disappointed. At one point, they write, `NASA appeared to be once again ignoring a possible source of debris, the same thing that doomed the Columbia shuttle. This time it was ice forming on the external fuel tank.' They write that it was not until the new administrator, Michael Griffin, intervened, that the possibility of falling ice was treated as potentially critical debris that could fatally damage the space shuttle.

Their appendix also says that although engineers were encouraged to speak up about problems, quote, "More people were talking, but not many more were listening," end quote. None of the seven who wrote that appendix could be reached for comment. Richard Covey says it does not represent the views of the task force as a whole.

Mr. COVEY: Many of us on the task group did not see the actions and the management in the same light as other people did.

KESTENBAUM: Covey noted that many task force members who have expertise running large, complex organizations did not sign on to that appendix. Four members of the task force are retired Air Force generals; others work in the aerospace industry.

One of the things that NASA did learn during the flight of Discovery this month is that foam is still falling off the fuel tank during launch. The appendix doesn't sound any specific warnings about the foam problem, but it does point out that in preparing to fly again, NASA seemed to go about things backwards when trying to set limits for debris. Managers used computer models to try to justify decisions that had already been made instead of using the models to try to decide what was right. Dean Acosta is a NASA spokesman. He says managers and engineers will go back and review the whole foam problem.

Mr. DEAN ACOSTA (NASA Spokesman): We were wrong. We have admitted it. We didn't get it right in that particular case, and we are gonna make sure moving forward that we don't repeat the same mistakes, and you won't see us launch again until we get a better understanding of why things happened the way they did. Now if that included some of these observations, that it was a breakdown in the process, obviously the team that is looking at right now will make that assessment and we'll make that adjustment moving forward.

KESTENBAUM: The final report questions how much moving forward can actually be done. The executive summary, which represents the consensus of the group, reads in part, quote, "The hard fact of the matter is that the external tank will always shed debris," end quote. `Perhaps,' it says, `even pieces large enough to do significant damage to the shuttle.'

David Kestenbaum, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Kestenbaum is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues and, most recently, the global economy for NPR's multimedia project Planet Money. David has been a science correspondent for NPR since 1999. He came to journalism the usual way — by getting a Ph.D. in physics first.