Shuttle Bugs

The wisdom of hindsight found in the report on the Columbia shuttle disaster is impressive. Now if the report's 29 recommendations can bring the wisdom of foresight to NASA, as well as to its overseers in Congress and anyone who champions human exploration of space, then Americans can breathe more easily at the next shuttle flight, hopefully by next year.

That the nation continues to forgive NASA for its mistakes and pay its $15.5 billion budget is a testament to its commitment in the space-shuttle program, which has had 111 successful flights since 1981 - plus two disasters. Indeed, the report's message is that a sincere commitment to safety by NASA's workers just isn't enough. Rather, a restructuring of NASA can create better means for listening to dissent on safety concerns by freeing up communication and reducing fear of retribution for asking tough questions. (See story.)

The report found that "persistent, systemic flaws" within this government bureaucracy - that weren't corrected after the 1986 Challenger disaster - led to mistakes. One was a decision not to use spy satellites to look at the damage from the flying foam insulation that struck the orbiter's wing during liftoff. The investigation board found that a hole in the wing was the likely cause of the shuttle's breakup on reentry.

Just as the FBI and CIA are learning from their intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, so, too, has NASA already begun to change its "flawed practices" (as the report calls them) since the loss of the seven astronauts on Feb.1.

But can NASA reform enough - and quickly - to revive the shuttle program? At hearings next month in Congress, its administrators must convince lawmakers, and the American people, that root-to-branch reform has taken place before the next launch.

Congress, too, must make sure of NASA's internal reforms, and then provide the additional funding - perhaps up to $200 million - to make the technical and bureaucratic course corrections to keep the shuttle going.

With more eyes than ever on NASA's work, the last remaining three shuttles can still have some life.

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