Some of the same "disturbing" traits that contributed to the Columbia disaster were still present in the months leading up to the shuttle Discovery's liftoff, seven members of a larger oversight panel said Wednesday in a scathing critique.
"We expected that NASA leadership would set high standards for post-Columbia work," the panel members wrote. "We were, overall, disappointed."
The minority report said poor leadership made the shuttle's return to space on July 26 more complicated, expensive and prolonged than it needed to be. So much emphasis was placed on meeting unrealistic launch dates that some safety improvements were skipped, the group said.
"Another disturbing trait that we observed was that personalities were allowed to dominate over strict process," the seven added.
The critics include a former shuttle astronaut, a former undersecretary of the Navy, a former Congressional Budget Office director, a former moon rocket engineer, a retired nuclear engineer and two university professors.
"NASA needs to learn the lessons of its past . . . lessons provided at the cost of the lives of seventeen astronauts," they added, referring to the seven killed aboard Columbia and 10 others who died in the Challenger and Apollo 1 accidents.
The seven critics are part of the 26-member task force that monitored NASA's progress in meeting the recommendations of the Columbia accident investigators. The entire task force concluded in late June -- a month before Discovery's liftoff -- that the space agency had not satisfied three of the 15 return-to-flight recommendations, but it did not call on NASA to postpone the launch.
Those three failed recommendations were perhaps the most critical: an inability to prevent dangerous pieces of foam and ice from breaking off the fuel tank during launch; an inability to fix any damage to the shuttle in orbit; and a failure to make the shuttle less vulnerable to debris strikes.
As it turned out, a large chunk of foam insulation broke off Discovery's fuel tank during liftoff but did not hit the orbiter.
In a telephone news conference, the co-chairmen of the task force, retired Apollo astronaut Thomas P. Stafford and retired shuttle astronaut Richard O. Covey, defended NASA. They declined to comment on the observations of the seven, saying they did not represent the views of the full panel.
The seven task force members said NASA should have done detailed engineering reviews of the investigators' recommendations before committing to launch dates. That way, they said, the agency would have better understood the foam loss and seriously considered other approaches, such as a redesigned fuel tank or hardening the shuttle's skin.