Analysis: NASA Culture Still Broken?

The Associated Press
Saturday, July 28, 2007; 9:29 PM

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- At NASA, once again, the problem is its culture _ a habit of dismissing the concerns of knowledgeable underlings.

Four years ago, it involved higher-ups ignoring engineers who feared possible catastrophic damage to the shuttle Columbia. The engineers were right.

This time, it's NASA doctors and even astronauts getting the brushoff when voicing worries that some astronauts have drunk too much alcohol before flying.

"I think things have changed, but some things remain the same," said Douglas Osheroff, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who investigated the Columbia disaster in 2003.

An independent health panel disclosed Friday that, at least twice, astronauts were cleared to fly despite warnings from flight surgeons and other astronauts about their heavy drinking. One intoxicated astronaut flew into orbit on a Russian spacecraft; the other ended up with a shuttle launch delay for mechanical reasons but later tried to take off in a training jet while still under the influence.

In both cases, the doctors and other astronauts were ignored by higher-ranking officials. Flight surgeons feel so disregarded, in general, that they told the panel they are demoralized and less likely to report concerns of impaired performance.

All NASA's leadership wants, several senior flight surgeons told the panel, is to hear that all medical systems are "go" for space flight operations. They do not want to hear doctors' doubts about an astronauts' fitness for duty or behavioral problems, the panel was told.

That was the same perception low-level engineers had during Columbia's final flight: Their bosses only wanted to hear positive news about the fuel-tank insulating foam that broke off and turned into deadly shrapnel that punctured Columbia's wing. Seven astronauts died.

"NASA has had a history of ignoring indications that something is wrong, and even though the odds were with NASA, they have lost," Osheroff said, referring to recurring foam problems before Columbia's doomed mission.

It always seems to come down to schedule pressure, which contributed in large part to Columbia's demise, Osheroff noted.

"I think part of it is still this pressure to launch and launch on time," he said. "I don't know what it costs NASA to delay a launch. But there are two costs. One is a political cost and the other is an economic cost."

Besides tales of drunken astronauts, the health panel heard anecdotes about other risky behavior _ unspecified in the report _ that was well known to their colleagues, who were too afraid to speak up for fear of ostracism.

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