Experts Warned Of Budget Cuts, Safety Concerns

R. Jeffrey Smith, Joby Warrick and Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 2, 2003

The thunderous explosion of Columbia over central Texas yesterday was presaged by a drumbeat of warnings by government auditors and experts who voiced concerns about lapses in oversight and deferred safety improvements for NASA's aging fleet of space shuttles.

Although "safety first" was the watchword of shuttle launches, aerospace engineers have repeatedly complained that belt-tightening and shifting priorities were denying Columbia and the three other shuttles the necessary upgrades and improvements.

As recently as last April, the chairman of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel warned Congress that NASA's management of the shuttle program had drawn "the strongest safety concern the panel has voiced" in 15 years. "I have never been as worried for space shuttle safety as I am right now," said Richard Blomberg, who was then chairman of the panel.

None of this was supposed to happen. The last lethal shuttle disaster, 17 years ago, provoked calls for revolutionary changes in the program's management. The agency promised that safety would henceforth be put far ahead of all other considerations, including budget constraints, the demands of its users and political pressures.

"We will never launch when it is unsafe," Fred Gregory, then NASA's director of space flight, promised the House science and space subcommittee nine months ago.

While none of those who issued warnings pointed specifically to a defect immediately known to be implicated in yesterday's disaster, they warned repeatedly that safety was losing the battle for scarce NASA funds. The program's 40 percent budget decline over the past decade had undermined its ability to guarantee flawless performances, they said.

NASA's response was mostly to say it disagreed: The problems were not that bad; safety was still the top priority; and the number of shuttle "anomalies" or defects was dropping fast. "NASA will continue to ensure that an adequate staff and shuttle workforce" is available to maintain a perfect record, Gregory promised.

But safety experts have long said NASA's claim that safety was improving stemmed from an illusion. The shuttle, they said, was an aging, balky and delicate space truck that exceeded NASA's own risk limits for manned flight. Time was not its friend.

The ungainly glider was created in the 1970s through a marriage of adventurous design and well-known technology, and it was considered underfunded from the outset. By all accounts, the program has never really embraced the past decade's stunning advances in aerospace engineering and safety testing.

After the shuttle Challenger exploded on launch in 1986, for example, numerous safety advisers urged that a crew ejection capsule be added to save lives even in the midst of calamity. "There is a clear need . . . to develop a plan to address the absence of an escape system by either upgrading the space shuttle or initiating a program with a realistic timetable to replace it," the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel concluded last year.

NASA has studied the problem for years, but the costs of retrofitting such a device kept it from acting. As a result, Columbia's crew had no choice but to follow the craft's fate as it broke up around the point of reentry into Earth's atmosphere.

No new shuttle has been in development, and, in fact, many of the most recent safety alarms stemmed from the agency's recent plan to try to extend the life of the current shuttles by an additional 25 years. Blomberg warned, in particular, that budget-tightening compelled the shuttle program to spend most of its resources on current operations while planned improvements, including some that would "directly reduce flight risk," were deferred or eliminated.

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