Recovering from Challenger disaster. Amid soul-searching, NASA center tries to improve booster

Since Challenger erupted into flames last January, much of the heat for the disaster has been felt in the low, woody hills of the Tennessee Valley. Here at the proud and accomplished Marshall Space Flight Center -- responsible for the booster joints blamed for the accident -- the nuts-and-bolts task of reworking the shuttle design began almost immediately.

Where some National Aeronautics and Space Administration field centers have been partly idled by the accident, Marshall was pushed into high gear. Some Marshall people worked from Jan. 28 through Easter without so much as a Sunday off and ``in the face of emotional hurt,'' says William Lucas, who retired last week after 12 years as Marshall's director.

Marshall is now in the midst of changing the booster-joint design to make it safe without a wholesale rebuilding of the joints. Engineers here are also buried in a painstaking review of hundreds of other parts that, if any one failed, could lead to the destruction of the shuttle.

But it is not clear yet how deeply the Challenger accident and the investigation that followed has changed the Marshall Space Flight Center.

A presidential commission that recently completed its investigation into the Challenger disaster has faulted not just the shuttle hardware, but more sweeping management practices surrounding the design problems.

The men who were directly involved in faulty decisions over the booster joints have all moved out of the shuttle program, and they speak frankly of their misjudgments. But there is some resistance here to the commission's broader conclusions about Marshall.

Marshall has a longheld reputation for having a distinctive character, as do all the NASA field centers.

``It has always been the most closed and isolated and inward-looking of the centers,'' says Alex Roland, Duke University historian of the space program.

From its early days as the Redstone Army Arsenal, under German rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun, Marshall has worked cooperatively with other research centers, but proud of its early ability to carry all aspects of designing, testing, and launching rockets itself.

``We're different in that there was a time in our history when we did everything,'' says James E. Kingsbury, head of the science and engineering directorate and a Marshall veteran from before it joined NASA in 1960.

Marshall was also different, notes Dr. Roland, in the ``disciplined, authoritarian, uncommunicative'' way the publicly charming Von Braun ran the center.

The Challenger investigation raised some of these characterizations again.

``The commission is troubled,'' the investigators wrote in their June final report, ``by what appears to be a propensity of management at Marshall to contain potentially serious problems and to attempt to resolve them internally rather than communicate them forward.''

This ``management isolation,'' the commissioners wrote, should be overcome through better communication.

In response, NASA has charged astronaut Robert Crippen with developing better communication procedures, especially between managers in charge of certain shuttle systems, such as the booster rockets, the head of the whole shuttle program, and NASA's top administrators.

Says Dr. Lucas: ``We're going to evaluate everything we do, and where we find deficiencies, we'll fix them.'' But he admits to no isolation at Marshall. ``I don't believe that is a fair assessment of Marshall, and it never has been.''

``I don't want to take exception to the commission's report,'' says Mr. Kingsbury, ``but I don't know how they came to the conclusion that we are autonomous. . . . I don't believe we're autonomous or isolated or anything else.''

The specific case of isolation that concerned the commission involved the fact that the debate over cold-weather performance of the O-ring seals in the booster joints was not conveyed to the head of the shuttle program in Houston or to headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Marshall officials counter that these O-ring concerns were well-aired throughout NASA. A videotape of a headquarters briefing last spring by Marshall booster-rocket head Lawrence Mulloy supports this contention.

Mr. Mulloy himself, at the center of much of the Challenger investigation, has been shifted out of the shuttle program to be Mr. Kingsbury's assistant.

``It has been very difficult for me in dealing with my real involvement over the years'' in failing to correct the booster-joint problems. Errors and distortions in the press, he says, ``have exacerbated this.''

Says Mulloy: ``We had a deficient design, and we didn't recognize it. When we did recognize it, we didn't fix it. We rationalized it as an acceptable risk.''

Marshall engineers are not going to completely redesign the joints. Although that might be ideal, says Kingsbury, it is too expensive and time-consuming. Rather, the existing joints will be fixed so that they don't twist open as the ignited rocket bulges.

NASA management is also getting fixed. New administrator James Fletcher announced last week that headquarters will now run the space station project, not the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

How management changes will come to Marshall is uncertain. After the four-month presidential commission investigation, Lucas says it is too soon to ``jump to conclusions'' about what the center needs. ``We don't have the full story yet,'' he says. ``Oftentimes your first look is deceiving.''

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