A harsh critique of NASA's culture

Columbia investigation board's report criticizes space agency's bureaucracy and congressional pennypinching.

The space shuttle Columbia was destroyed by events on Earth as much as by anything in flight.

That's the hard-hitting conclusion of a NASA investigation board, which released its final report on Tuesday.

While the proximate cause of the Columbia disaster was a breach in the heat shield of its left wing, the chain of events which led to this breach was the result of a NASA culture that grew used to accepting too much risk, according to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. NASA's bureaucracy was driven by its schedule, and tried to run a lackadaisical safety program on the cheap.

But NASA did not operate in a vacuum. Washington itself should bear part of this blame, say analysts. Congress and the White House have starved the space-shuttle program of funds, meddled in shuttle operations, and in general maintained an air of complacency about space programs.

"The blame does not lie just with NASA," says Brian Chase, executive director of the National Space Society, a point that the investigation board also acknowledges.

To NASA, the message from this exercise may be that untested assumptions and complacency over anomalies can have no part in human spaceflight. For Congress and the White House, the lesson may be that if human presence in space is a national priority, the shuttle program must have the money necessary to reduce risks. For the nation, the report serves as a reminder that spaceflight is never routine.

"The loss of Columbia and her crew represents a turning point, calling for renewed public-policy debate and commitment regarding human space exploration," wrote the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in its 248-page study.

In its report, the 13-member Columbia Accident Investigation Board identified what it saw as the technical and organizational factors that led to the loss of Columbia and the orbiter's crew.

Many of the panel's main recommendations had already been released during the course of the probe to help the agency prepare to return the orbiters to flight. Indeed, the panel has classified them as requirements for returning to flight. These include eliminating the sources of debris shed from the external fuel tank at launch, hardening the heat-resistant material on the wings' leading edges to resist debris impacts, and ensuring that astronauts on missions to the International Space Station (ISS) can make emergency repairs to an orbiter that fails to dock with the ISS or is damaged during docking.

One organizational issue it sees as mandatory before returning to flight is a detailed plan for setting up and running an independent technical engineering authority and an independent safety program. These groups would be funded through money straight from headquarters and not from the shuttle budget. They would independently verify that a vehicle is ready for launch, would have sole authority for waiving requirements, and would determine what glitches uncovered by ground crews and astronauts qualify as anomalies that need attention.

While the report, as promised, focuses heavily on management shortcomings, longer term trends in funding and political support also took their toll.

If NASA's budget had merely been adjusted for inflation over the years, the agency would be receiving $20 billion instead of $15 billion in the administration's latest budget request. The tight budgets left NASA to face some tough trade-offs.

Current administrator Sean O'Keefe's predecessor, Daniel Goldin, "had a difficult challenge," notes Howard McCurdy, a specialist in space policy at American University in Washington, D.C. In the face of flat budgets, Mr. Goldin had to find a replacement for the aging shuttles that would be more reliable and would cut the cost of launching humans and cargo into space. To do this, "he had to cut the cost of flying shuttles by 30 to 40 percent."

The effect was to raise chances of failure in the short run while trying to reduce them in the long run, Dr. McCurdy says.

O'Keefe, by contrast, is faced with flying the shuttles for another 20 years. With a three-shuttle fleet instead of the original four orbiters, he could be forced to reduce the number of missions that require the orbiters so he can make the upgrades needed. Such reductions could have a serious effect on America's ability to ferry crews, supplies, and new components to the ISS - a role the Russians have been playing more prominently since the US fleet was grounded after Columbia's loss.

To some, NASA's predicament is also caused by a can-do agency trying to force an experimental vehicle to live up to promises of cheaper, more reliable access to space - promises the orbiters are incapable of fulfilling. "It's as if people are trying to force the shuttle program to work by an act of will," notes Alex Roland, a former NASA historian now at Duke University.

The idea of human spaceflight, including eventual manned missions to Mars, represents a reasonable program, he continues. But a key first step is getting a launch vehicle into low-Earth orbit at much lower cost than the shuttle. He proposes turning the ISS into a human-tended, rather than human-occupied, research platform and reducing the number of shuttle missions to an absolute minimum necessary to ensure the money for a robust research and development program on a new launch vehicle.

Until now, Mr. Chase adds, "NASA hasn't been allowed to look higher than low-earth orbit for human space flight." The shuttle and ISS programs often appear to be ends in themselves, when they could well serve as stepping-stones to human missions to Mars or back to the moon.

Such efforts also could boost broader public interest in human space exploration, analysts say, noting that while polls indicate support for the program overall, the public appears to show little enthusiasm for space trucks moving back and forth between Earth and the space station.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.