NASA's 'Cycle of Smugness'

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

THE SAFETY problems that plague the space shuttle are more ingrained and more disturbing than the continuing difficulties with foam insulation that befell Discovery during its launch last month. That's not to minimize the foam issue: It was a dislodged chunk of foam that fatally damaged Columbia, and the fact that the problem recurred with Discovery despite the intense focus on fixing it is unsettling, to say the least. Even more troubling, though, are the conclusions of seven of 26 members of a shuttle safety task force that fundamental management failures and a chilling disregard for safety persist two years after the Columbia catastrophe.

The task force was convened to assess NASA's compliance with the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, and it concluded in June that the space agency had achieved 12 of the accident board's 15 recommendations. But in a devastating 19-page appendix -- written before Discovery's launch but released only last week -- the seven panel members looked beyond those precise recommendations to the space agency's underlying cultural and managerial problems. It found "enduring themes of dysfunctional behavior" -- including a failure of rigorous scientific analysis, an inability to accurately assess risk and a refusal to impose accountability.

The members found that the "broken safety culture" identified by the accident board persisted, with risks being tolerated simply because they had not caused problems in previous flights. "This 'we've seen this before' mentality is still present," the report said. "NASA's leaders must break this cycle of smugness substituting for knowledge." This is not the report of a rogue group predisposed to find fault with NASA; it included a former astronaut, former director of the Congressional Budget Office, former undersecretary of the Navy and two engineers.

Among the problems they cited was "false schedule pressure" to resume shuttle flights, resulting in a failure to implement the best solution because of arbitrary time constraints. "As a result, at the end of 2 1/2 years and $1.5 billion or more, it is not clear what has been accomplished," the group said. The harshest criticism was reserved for NASA leadership: "Within the human spaceflight programs, the lack of accountability appears to be pervasive, from the failure to establish responsibility for the loss of Columbia, up to and including a failure to require an adequate risk assessment of the next flight."

Some members of the shuttle safety task force differed with that grim assessment, but the conclusions, undergirded by specific examples, need to be taken seriously. One heartening sign is that the new NASA administrator, Michael Griffin, insisted that the minority report be made public. According to the report, it took the personal intervention of Mr. Griffin, shortly after his appointment, to delay the shuttle's scheduled launch to deal with the issue of ice breaking off the external fuel tank. Good for Mr. Griffin, but the idea that other senior managers would minimize this potentially catastrophic problem is inexcusable.

Before the shuttle flies again, and before more billions are spent on human space flight, there must be evidence that the space agency has, finally, managed to end this dangerous cycle.


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