Spaceflight Now

NASA chief vows to implement recommendations
Posted: August 26, 2003

NASA will use the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's final report as a blueprint for correcting the problems that led to the Feb. 1 shuttle disaster and returning the shuttle safely to flight, Administrator Sean O'Keefe said today.

"We have accepted the findings and will comply with the recommendations to the best of our ability," he said. "The board has provided NASA with an important road map as we determine when we will be 'fit to fly' again.

"Due to the comprehensive, timely and open public communication displayed by the Board throughout the investigative process, we already have begun to take action on the earlier issued recommendations, and we intend to comply with the full range of recommendations released today."

Harold Gehman, chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, told CBS News this afternoon NASA has little choice. In the panel's view, he said, NASA cannot safely operate the space shuttle program without major changes in its management system.

"I think there's a little bit of denial that NASA, at least in the shuttle program, that NASA has modified its organizational structure over the years into one that no longer contains the attributes that they built their reputations on," Gehman said. "There may be some people who deny that, but the board is absolutely convinced, we think there's no room for any doubt whatsoever, the management system they have right now is not capable of safely operating the shuttle over the long term. That's the bottom line."

Gehman also said Congress and the White House must share blame for the Columbia disaster with NASA. Asked what he might tell President Bush about NASA and the agency's second in-flight tragedy, Gehman said he would point out that "NASA is a great organization that he and the country can have a lot of pride in. And that they are operating under and unrealistic set of rules and guidelines."

"Exploring space on a fixed cost basis is not realistic," the retired admiral said. "Launching shuttles on a calendar basis instead of an event-driven basis is not realistic. Demanding that you save money and run this thing in an efficient and effective way and that you get graded on schedule and things like that is not realistic. That the whole nation and Congress and the White House has an unrealistic view of how we do space exploration."

In addition, the board's report "clearly specifies that there is responsibility at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for this that are shared with NASA," Gehman said. "Now in some cases, NASA over markets what they can do. They promise more than they can deliver and they promise they can deliver it at a price that is less than it's really going to cost. But in some cases, it is demanded of them, in order to get a program approved, that they agree to unrealistic schedules and unrealistic price tags. So there's blame at both ends here."

The CAIB report focuses heavily on decisions made NASA's mission management team, the panel of senior agency leaders that oversaw the day-to-day conduct of Columbia's mission. The MMT, chaired by former flight director Linda Ham, shut down efforts to obtain spy satellite photography of Columbia's damaged wing and failed to challenge a hurried analysis that concluded the shuttle was in no danger of a catastrophic failure.

Gehman told CBS News the space agency's management system is so dysfunctional it hardly mattered who was in charge.

"We believe very, very strongly that you could substitute almost anybody in those positions and operate under the guidelines and rules and precedents that were being used in NASA and they would make the same errors," he said.

"Let me give you a specific case in point. Much has been made of the fact that the MMT didn't meet every day. NASA regulations require that they meet every day. So I had my board go back and see what were the meetings scheduled for the previous two shuttle missions? Guess what? They met every third day.

"So Linda Ham was doing her job according to the standards and precedents that were set by the establishment," he continued. "Even though the rules say you have to meet every day, you don't really have to. So that's an organizational flaw and she was performing her duties in that respect in accordance with the standards and precedents that had been previously established by her predecessors. And her predecessor's bosses had let that go on.

"So we feel very, very strongly that just moving the people around won't fix that problem. Unfortunately, we live in a town here in Washington, DC, in which they frequently demand someone pay. But we on the board were not influenced by that" and the board did not assign personal blame for any real or perceived errors in judgment.

Could a more experienced or proactive program manager or MMT chairman have made a different in Columbia's case?

"We feel there's some part of this, maybe even a lot of these problems, could have been mitigated by a stronger, a more suspicious, nervous kind of a person," Gehman said of the MMT and its chairman. "But our conclusion, our very, very strong conclusion is even if you had really brilliant people, really spectacular people, if you had the very, very best person you could get, that it would be a low probability bet that you could count on them to overcome the flaws in the organization. That is a low probability course of action."

Asked if NASA was "in denial" about serious management flaws and defects, Gehman said "in a lot of cases, they will deny that they have a basic organizational flaw which is dangerous. I think they'll deny that, some of them. Others will applaud it. It kind of depends on where you sit."

The CAIB's criticism of NASA drew an unusual response from Stephen Feldman, president of The Astronauts Memorial Foundation.

"One of the great risks of the Columbia tragedy and the subsequent report and commentary is that outstanding scientists and engineers may feel so criticized and unappreciated that they will leave NASA and the space program for higher paying and often less stressful jobs in the private sector," he said in a statement. "The outstanding safety record that NASA has compiled over the years shouldn't be forgotten because of one terrible accident on February 1, 2003."

But O'Keefe's promise to full implement the CAIB recommendations drew praise from the National Space Society, a nonprofit advocacy group founded by German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun.

"The National Space Society urges NASA to embrace the recommendations of the CAIB and work diligently to fundamentally reform its decision-making processes and safety organizations so that we can safely return the Space Shuttle fleet to service," said Executive Director Brian Chase. "However, in order for NASA to fully implement the CAIB recommendations and continue the exploration of space, the agency will need appropriate funding to accomplish those tasks.

"The White House and the U.S. Congress must accept their share of responsibility for the future of our nation's space exploration efforts and provide the necessary leadership.

"Perhaps most importantly, NASA and our nation's leaders need to take this opportunity to foster development of new space transportation systems and renew a long-term commitment to human space exploration."

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