NASA ADMINISTRATOR Sean O'Keefe warned agency employees this summer that the report on the loss of the space shuttle Columbia would be "really ugly." Yesterday's assessment by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board lived up to his grim billing. In 248 unsparing pages, the board not only identified the physical cause of the disaster but also the deep-seated managerial and cultural problems that, panel members found, were as much to blame as the chunk of foam that hit the shuttle's left wing 81.9 seconds after launch. These systemic problems are far more disturbing and will be far harder to fix than the insulating foam. Saddest of all is the board's conclusion that NASA failed to learn "the bitter lessons" of the 1986 Challenger explosion and fix the "broken safety culture" identified after Challenger. The board warns that "the scene is set for another accident" if these "persistent, systemic flaws" aren't addressed. Yet the panel's recounting of shuttle history -- the three decades of juggling "conflicting goals of cost, schedule and safety," the backsliding into complacency after Challenger -- suggests just how difficult it will be to achieve the needed transformation.
Even given what we have learned during the past seven months about NASA lapses, the final report is devastating in its portrayal of shuttle managers more concerned about "getting on with the mission than in hearing about problems." Hewing to the schedule for completing construction of the international space station was a priority. Before Columbia's launch, shuttle officials discounted the risks posed by repeated foam strikes, much as they had ignored the implications of eroding O-rings before the Challenger explosion. Once Columbia was in orbit, shuttle officials missed -- or even blocked -- eight separate opportunities to get more information about the extent of possible damage, the report says. "Perhaps most striking is the fact that management . . . displayed no interest in understanding a problem and its implications," the report says.
Board chairman Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr. and his colleagues don't limit their criticism to NASA. Congress and successive administrations never were willing to spend the money that would have been necessary to achieve the goal of making space launches routine. Over the past decade, the shuttle program's budget has been reduced by 40 percent in purchasing power at a time when the aging shuttle fleet demanded more maintenance. The budget was "repeatedly raided" to make up for cost overruns in the space station. Meanwhile, there was no national policy about when the shuttle would be phased out or what its replacement might be, something that the report says has "severely complicated decisions" about spending on the existing fleet.
"Our journey into space will go on," President Bush said yesterday, and NASA is eager to get the shuttle running again, for reasons both practical (the shuttle is the only way to get parts to the space station) and political (the quicker the program resumes, the less vulnerable it is to cuts). Yet the Gehman report requires far more than simply reshuffling shuttle managers -- much of which has already happened -- or even overhauling, once again, the agency's safety program. It calls for serious reflection about the purpose of space exploration following the end of the Cold War and the role of human space flight within that endeavor. As House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), a supporter of the program, put it yesterday, "Is it worth the costs? Is it worth the risks? That's what we're going to have to ask ourselves."