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`Little has improved in NASA since Challenger tragedy'

The space shuttle Columbia crew (from left), commander Rick Husband, pilot William McCool, mission specialists Ilan Ramon, David Brown, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark, and Kalpana Chawla, in Cape Canaveral, in this Dec. 20, 2002, file photo.

The space shuttle Columbia crew (from left), commander Rick Husband, pilot William McCool, mission specialists Ilan Ramon, David Brown, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark, and Kalpana Chawla, in Cape Canaveral, in this Dec. 20, 2002, file photo.  

Washington Aug. 26. Investigators trying to get to the bottom of the destruction of the Space Shuttle, Colombia, have sharply criticised the National Aeronautics and Space Administration saying that the agency is driven, among other things, by schedule, starved of funds and a safety programme that is hardly sufficient.

In a comprehensive study of what went wrong on February 1 when Colombia disintegrated upon re-entry and burnt up over eastern Texas and Louisiana killing all seven astronauts, the Colombia Accident Investigative Board has argued that NASA's attitude to safety has improved little since the time of the Challenger tragedy of 1986 and that a disaster is set for repeat if changes are not made.

"The board strongly believes that if these persistent, systemic flaws are not resolved, the scene is set for another accident," the CAIB report presented this morning says. The Board has argued that mission managers fell into a habit of accepting flaws in the shuttle system and also tended to ignore or fail to recognise that the problems could foreshadow a disaster.

"These repeating patterns mean that flawed practices embedded in NASA's organisational system continued for 20 years and made substantial contributions to both accidents", the report has said referring to the disasters of the Challenger and the Colombia. The 240-odd page report is expected to attract serious attention on Capitol Hill when lawmakers return next week.

The Investigators did not merely criticise the mission specialists or those specifically in charge of the Colombia flight; rather there were critical observations on management techniques of the space agency citing it for "ineffective leadership" that had failed to fulfil the implicit contract of doing "whatever is possible" for safety of the crew members.

Of specific interest to the investigators were the foam tiles that broke loose on launch from the external fuel tanks and slammed the wing of the shuttle. At the time mission specialists and engineers believed that this did not pose a safety problem. The rationale was that this had happened before and not posed a safety problem. But the direct criticism has been that specialists in the NASA did not show sufficient interest in getting spy satellite pictures of the shuttle to see for themselves the extent of the damage.

The Investigative Board has set out 29 recommendations, including some of the changes the space agency must fulfil if shuttles are to start flying again. And there are some long-term changes and suggestions for the changing of the agency's culture. "The changes we recommend will be difficult to accomplish, and will be internally resisted," the Report has said. The investigators have not solely focussed on the space agency for the shortcomings for, some of the blame has been passed on to the several administration and Congress for forcing NASA to stay on a lean budget for almost a decade with the agency actually losing 13 per cent of its purchasing power between 1993 and 2002.

Officials at the NASA were anxiously waiting for the Colombia Accident report with the word that it is going to be blunt. "The language is frank and direct and there may be some surprises", a member of the CAIB was quoted in an agency report. The CAIB has completed its seven-month investigation on the fiery end to the shuttle and has interviewed scores of persons, including mission specialists and engineers.

The leadership of the NASA has warned the rank and file not to take what is going to come personally. The head of the NASA, Sean O'Keefe, has gone on record saying that the report was going to have "no fuzz on it, no gloves" but that it was going to be "straightforward".

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