| Kalpana Chawla
Washington, Aug. 26 (Reuters): Nasa’s self-protective culture and its reluctance to tackle safety problems head-on contributed to the fatal breakup of shuttle Columbia, just as technical factors tore the ship apart, independent investigators reported today.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board, set up after the February 1 tragedy that killed seven astronauts, said in its final report that Nasa needs to set up separate safety agencies that will be able to get the attention of top space officials when things go wrong.
Board chairman Harold Gehman stressed at a briefing that the space shuttle fleet is not inherently unsafe, and praised Nasa as an “outstanding organisation.” However, he said Nasa needs to change how it monitors safety if the grounded shuttle fleet is to fly again, and must keep up safety standards over time, instead of growing complacent as it has in the past.
“There will be so much vigilance and so much zeal and attention to detail for the next half-dozen flights,” Gehman said. “The natural tendency of all bureaucracies to morph and migrate away from that diligent attitude is a great concern to the board, because the history of Nasa indicates that they’ve done it before.”
The board found that Nasa engineers raised questions soon after Columbia’s launch on January 16 about a piece of foam insulation that was seen falling from the ship’s massive external tank about 81 seconds after liftoff. Engineers asked three times during the 16-day mission for satellite images of Columbia in orbit to see if the foam struck and damaged the ship, but such images were never obtained.
The board’s report said Nasa officials missed eight opportunities to address concerns about the falling foam, which was ultimately found to be the accident’s immediate cause.
“From the beginning, the board witnessed a consistent lack of concern about the debris strike on Columbia,” the report said. “Nasa managers told the board: ‘There was no safety-of-flight issue’ and ‘We couldn’t have done anything about it anyway.’”
The report drew parallels between Nasa management problems now and at the time of the 1986 Challenger disaster, which also killed seven astronauts.
Board members agreed early on that the foam hit the heat-shielding leading edge of the left wing, causing a breach that allowed superheated gas to invade the ship on re-entry and led to its disintegration over Texas.
After seven months of work at a cost of about $20 million, the 248-page report recommended wholesale changes in how the National Aeronautics and Space Administration does business, including the creation of a Technical Engineering Authority funded directly from Nasa headquarters to monitor safety outside the constraints of individual programme pressures.