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Congress eyes NASA 'blob of bureaucracy'

By Times Wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 24, 2003

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The report into the shuttle Columbia disaster will look hauntingly familiar to those who lived through the agony of Challenger.

Technical defects and bad management at NASA brought down both ships. But this time, two key members of Congress indicate they are ready to force drastic changes in the safety of human spaceflight.

"It's going to require us to knock some heads and to affix some accountability and to make sure certain people are let go and make sure changes are made. There's nothing that resists change more than a huge blob of bureaucracy," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, chairman of the House Science Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.

Both he and Sen. Bill Nelson of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation have been periodically briefed by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, led by retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr. The panel will issue its report on Tuesday, and it promises to be hard-hitting.

"What used to be a muscled and strong work force and agency, aimed at the future and aimed at conquering space, is what Adm. Gehman has been telling us is now a blob of bureaucracy that is incompetent at overseeing manned spaceflight," said Rohrabacher, a California Republican.

Nelson, a Florida Democrat who flew on Columbia just days before the Challenger disaster, notes worriedly: "This is a situation where the entire human space program is on the line."

The Columbia board spent nearly twice as many months as the Challenger probe and took a harder, harsher look at the entire shuttle program.

The Gehman board will "start to peel back the onion" of not only the technical reasons for the Columbia disaster but also NASA's communication and decision-making breakdowns, the senator said. A more permanent investigation to follow up on those deeper issues is a good idea, too, Nelson said.

Approximately 250 pages, the report will be full of details about the persistent shedding of fuel-tank foam insulation over the decades. In particular, it will focus on the 11/2-pound piece that broke off during Columbia's mid January launch and punched a hole the size of a dinner plate in the edge of the left wing. Two weeks later, that hole let in atmospheric gases heated thousands of degrees, melting the wing from inside out. The spacecraft broke apart on its return to Earth, killing the seven astronauts.

Technical issues should be easy to resolve, compared with the organizational problems that lay at the heart of the Columbia disaster, a NASA culture that prevents low-level employees from speaking out and fosters intimidation, according to investigators.

Diane Vaughan, a Boston College sociologist and author of The Challenger Launch Decision, said it's clear that the changes made by NASA after the 1986 shuttle accident did not go far enough. The space agency's can-do attitude still existed to the extreme when Columbia disintegrated on Feb. 1, she said.

Vaughan is heartened that the 13-member board directed by Gehman has spent seven months looking into the Columbia accident, compared with the four-month Challenger inquiry. Gehman and his group of safety specialists and scientists have spent $20-million on the Columbia probe.

Many of the board's members are professional investigators, and their approach seems to be "much more hands-on," Vaughan said.

But she noted: "The crux of the matter doesn't rest so much with the board's report, but what NASA does with it afterward."

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