Task force members rap NASA effort to return shuttle to flight
Cutting corners to deal with deadline pressure compromised astronaut safety, says a minority of members of assessment group.
Seven members of a group that monitored NASA's effort to return space shuttles to flight last month say the agency compromised astronaut safety by setting unrealistic deadlines and cutting technical corners to meet them.
"The return-to-flight effort, when taken as a whole, was not effectively led or managed," the group wrote in a document released Wednesday, eight days after Discovery returned to Earth from the first space shuttle mission in 30 months.
"It is difficult to be objective based on hindsight, but it appears to us that lessons that should have been learned have not been. Perhaps we expected or hoped for too much," states a minority opinion attached to the final report of the Return to Flight Task Group.
NASA established the 25-member task group in 2003 to assess its progress in satisfying safety recommendations made by investigators of the February 2003 Columbia accident. The task group, headed by two former astronauts, found that the agency failed to meet three key requirements for ensuring that another orbiter wouldn't be damaged beyond repair during liftoff.
Before Discovery was launched July 26, NASA said it had substantially reduced the risk associated with shuttle flights but found it impossible to eliminate all sources of hazardous debris shedding from the shuttle's external fuel tank. Launch photography captured Discovery in a near miss with a pound-sized chunk of insulating insulating foam similar to the one that caused Columbia's destruction.
For that, the minority group blamed weak leadership, "pervasive" organizational and behavioral concerns, and a lack of engineering rigor and discipline. The group--which includes another former astronaut, a former Navy undersecretary and a former Congressional Budget Office director--said space shuttle managers bowed to schedule pressures and passed up numerous opportunities to implement the best solutions.
The minority opinion was attached to the report at the request of NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. Omitting it would have created the appearance that NASA doesn't want to hear negative criticism, he said in a news conference Thursday.
The agency has worked hard to improve its engineering management, processes and discipline, and "we can't get done unless we're willing to listen to all of the hard truths," he told reporters in Washington. But he declined to embrace the minority's observations until officials have time to consider all the task group's advice.
Adhering to its charter, the task group presented a summary of its findings to NASA prior to Discovery's launch. The leader of the return to flight effort, former associate administrator William Readdy, said Thursday it troubled him that the minority report was not included and actually was rewritten after liftoff. "That would seem to be second guessing in the extreme…given that the minority authors had two years to evaluate the program and progress," he told Government Executive.
Griffin also took issue with the minority report, denying the group's assertion that he intervened to halt plans to launch Discovery two months earlier, in May. Griffin said he put his engineering background to good use by attending as many reviews as possible, but that the launch team jointly decided to stand down until July for additional adjustments to Discovery's fuel tank. "My role…has been exaggerated to the point where it's in danger of becoming an urban legend," he told reporters.
Meanwhile Thursday, the newly appointed associate administrator for space operations, William Gerstenmaier, said NASA will not attempt to launch another shuttle until at least March. The second post-Columbia mission had been scheduled for September, but was postponed indefinitely because of the fuel tank shedding incident with Discovery.
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