Rogers panel to NASA: rein in far-flung fiefdoms

Although details remain closely held, the general drift of the Rogers Commission report on the Challenger disaster has become clear. The most far-reaching recommendation of the report -- and probably the most difficult to enact -- is that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) gather stronger central control over the shuttle program, control that is now spread over the agency's far-flung and competing space centers in Texas, Alabama, Florida, and elsewhere.

Potentially the most expensive subject of the report is the building of an escape system so that the crew could safely abandon the shuttle early in a flight. The commission will reportedly recommend new study of such a system. Its cost is potentially a half billion to a billion dollars, according to congressional aides.

During the four months since it was set up, the commission has often been highly critical of NASA management. The agency's once-considerable prestige has been badly damaged. But the upshot of the commission report, according to most observers, will be positive.

The report clearly pinpoints the direct cause of the Challenger accident as faulty seals in a solid-rocket booster joint. Apparently the commission has accumulated enough evidence of faulty performance in the seals before the accident to judge that such an accident was sooner or later predictable.

The commission wants an independent authority to oversee NASA's redesign of the booster joint, estimated to cost more than $600 million.

The shuttle carries hundreds of parts and systems that, like the O-ring seals in the joints, mean catastrophic loss of the shuttle and its crew when they fail. The commission is expected to recommend that all or most of these ``criticality 1'' items are carefully reviewed for possible redesign. If the commission asks specifically for the redesign of many of these parts, the cost to NASA could quickly multiply into additional hundreds of millions of dollars.

The commission members showed the most public frustration over NASA managers who overlooked or overruled the warnings of Morton Thiokol engineers about the vulnerability of the O-ring seals. Morton Thiokol builds the solid-rocket boosters. At least partly in response, the commission is reportedly asking for a more prominent role in launch decisions for the contractors who build shuttle parts and the astronauts who will fly them.

Early drafts of the commission report are said to have urged creating a new independent safety panel that would have a direct role in clearing launches. The commission apparently gave up this idea as impractical.

Observers inside and outside the agency are most optimistic -- yet leery -- over the concept of centralizing the agency.

The burgeoning rivalry between NASA's space centers has grown to overwhelm the larger mission of the agency in recent years, says John Stewart, who sits on NASA's advisory safety panel. ``It's a very serious problem and it contributed to the [organizational] environment of the accident.''

As an example, Mr. Stewart recalls a meeting held last August to review concerns over the booster-joint seals with representatives from NASA's Washington headquarters, Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and Morton Thiokol. No one from Houston's Johnson Space Center, which is supposed to run the overall shuttle program, was invited, Stewart says.

But observers note that the commission must be wary of adding bureaucracy to NASA that will take responsibility away from managers on the scene or hamstring them with new procedures. ``Otherwise you'll have [NASA administrator James] Fletcher deciding whether the agency goes to work every morning,'' says a former senior staff member at NASA.

The consensus is that the most important lesson from the Challenger investigation is that dissenting views in engineering controversies inside the shuttle team need to be given better airing, and risks need to be discussed more publicly.

``The system is guilty of one thing, and that is self-delusion'' about the risks of shuttle flight, the former NASA official says. ``Twenty-four successful launches will do that to you every time.''

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