NASA puts mission before safety

Regarding your Aug. 27 article, "A harsh critique of NASA's culture": In 1997, when I was a senior special agent at the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG), investigating the Mir Space Station fire and collision, I encountered one NASA obstruction after another, bordering on criminal misconduct. At that time, I voiced my opinion that NASA management's emphasis on mission over safety would lead to another Challenger disaster, and so it has. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board has done America a service, as it has recognized that problems within NASA management are key to understanding why the Columbia was destroyed.

When I was learning of the risks associated with placing astronauts on the Mir, I was also learning what lengths NASA would go to conceal its knowledge of those risks. Agents were kept out of safety reviews; employees were told not to cooperate with the OIG; NASA argued against giving witnesses confidentiality; and evidence crucial to the investigation was stolen from a locked room. Also in 1997, a decision was made to go with the foam on the external tanks, now identified as responsible for the Columbia catastrophe. The foam was not selected for safety purposes, but to placate the EPA and environmental left. NASA, which studies each launch for the presence of foreign object debris, knew foam would break off and strike the orbiter, as it had done for each launch, but did next to nothing.

After the Challenger disaster, it was widely believed that NASA had learned its lesson, but it had not. Now the public hopes that NASA has learned its lesson again. I predict, however, regardless of the recommendations and commitments made, that when the public spotlight dims, NASA will again resort to its bad practices, where mission is valued over safety, and whistle-blowers live in fear.
Joseph Richard Gutheinz Jr.

Insurgency in Iraq

The piece by John Hughes is good, and he is right that the situation is not Vietnam ("Why Iraq is not like Vietnam," Aug. 27). But he is setting up a straw man. Guerrilla warfare has developed far beyond the Maoist conception of yesteryear. The Iraqis don't need to develop a conventional army to parallel their "swarm" insurgency. Indeed, the very failure of their conventional military is what led them into this asymmetric type of war. They do not need to make heroic or overly strenuous efforts for the US enterprise in Iraq to be put in doubt.

Mr. Hughes also talks about jungles and difficult terrain in Vietnam, but he seems to be downplaying the immense difficulties of urban conflict. Further, the insurgency may still be localized, but the United States has certainly not won the hearts and minds of the 60 percent of the population that matters - the Shiites.
Ahmed Hashim
Newport, R.I.
Professor of Strategic Studies, Naval War College

Unprecedented blow to public schools

Your Aug. 26 article "Sounds of budget ax falling" is appalling, but not at all surprising. This is one of hundreds of examples of the fallout of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act. This piece of legislation will prove to be the most devastating thing to happen to US public education. Unfortunately, the only debate currently taking place about the act is about funding to support it. It seems nobody is talking about how wrong it is, how destructive it already has been, and how much we desperately need to have it repealed.

In my 30-plus years as an educator, I have never seen any movement or trend or law with such horrendous potential for harm.
William C. Fenstermaker
Myerstown, Pa.
Elementary school principal

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