CAPE CANAVERAL - NASA inspectors charged with making sure space shuttles are safe to fly were forced to buy their own tools and prevented from making spot checks, a Columbia accident investigator says.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Duane Deal, one of 13 members of the board investigating the cause of the shuttle accident, says he obtained crucial information by offering confidentiality to the 72 NASA and contractor employees he interviewed over months.
"They'd be fired" if their bosses found out what they confided, said Deal. "It is not an exaggeration."
Deal said that nearly 9 out of 10 workers interviewed said the investigation board should review the space agency's quality assurance program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and other NASA installations. That unit provides oversight to ensure safe shuttle flight operations.
He called the program "poor" because the number and kinds of inspections have been cut back.
Mike Rein, a NASA spokesman at Kennedy, declined to respond directly to Deal's assessments.
Deal said NASA quality assurance inspectors were not allowed to do everything in their job descriptions, such as spot checks.
He also said NASA quality assurance inspectors were denied necessary tools.
"They were supposed to have a nine-time magnifier and they only had a three, and it was taking them months to get a nine-time magnifier, so they went down and bought one at Home Depot," he said.
Other problems cited by workers:
NASA shuttle inspectors trained by contractors they are supposed to monitor.
Outdated test equipment that costs a lot to keep running and is not nearly as accurate as newer, digital systems.
The Columbia review board's report is due out in late August.