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Report Could Be Tough On NASA

The space shuttle Columbia lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Fla. Thursday Jan. 16, 2003 on a research mission.
AP
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board members are sifting through stacks of investigative material in a push to complete by late August a report on the causes of the shuttle disaster, the chairman said Friday.

"The board is involved almost exclusively with writing the report now," said retired Adm. Harold Gehman Jr. He said just about all of the investigative activities are now complete and the 13-member board is divided into groups that are writing chapters of the report.

The report, which also will recommend ways in which NASA can make shuttle flight safe again, is expected to reach more than 100 pages. It will focus on the root causes of the Feb. 1 accident that killed seven astronauts.

Participants at a news conference Friday said the report will include a detailed analysis of a test that one member called the "smoking gun" cause of the accident.

Air Force Gen. Duane Deal said the report also will examine NASA's quality assurance programs and analyze how the agency allowed "potentially deadly events to become acceptable."

He said there were at least seven incidents in earlier flights in which foam insulation smashed into the shuttle during launch, yet NASA continued to fly the craft without fixing the problem.

Deal said NASA needs to treat the shuttle as a test vehicle instead of an operational spacecraft.

"We need to treat each launch as if it is the first launch," said Deal. This means each abnormal event must be addressed and corrected, he added.

Board member John Logsdon of George Washington University said that there have been only 113 launches of the shuttle, while a test program for a military jet involved more than 1,600 flights.

Logsdon said the report will deal extensively with what he called the "NASA management culture."

One element, he said, was the unanswered question about how long NASA can continue flying the aging space shuttle fleet. This issue, said Logsdon, "pervaded the program" and is an issue that NASA has still not settled.

Air Force Lt. Col. Woody Woodyard, the board's chief spokesman, said board member Scott Hubbard of NASA has prepared a detailed engineering analysis of tests this week in which a chunk of foam insulation was fired at a mock up of the space shuttle wing.

The collision of the insulation smashed a 16-inch hole in the test wing's heat shield, prompting Hubbard to announce "we have found the smoking gun."

A working scenario for the accident, the board has said, was that a break in Columbia's heat shield allowed high temperature gases from re-entry to penetrate the hollow left wing and melt metal supports as the craft was returning to Earth at the end of a 16-day mission.

The spacecraft shattered and fell in pieces over East Texas and Louisiana. The shuttle fleet has been grounded while the board investigated. Space officials have said the shuttle fleet may be ready to safely return to space by the first quarter of 2004.

According to The Washington Post, there are indications the report will focus on the way shuttle safety has been affected by budget cuts under the first President Bush, President Clinton and the current administration.

The shuttle program was cut by more than $1 billion a year between 1993 and 2000, giving up $330 million to the space station and $600 million in cuts to reduce the federal deficit.

Another $300 million was saved by squeezing upgrades and innovations. NASA cancelled projects to replace the backup power units and develop a new booster rocket. It used more outside contractors, and halved its in-house maintenance staff.

"When you start adding up the overall NASA budget picture and the shuttle budget picture over the past decade, it's rather clear the shuttle had disproportionately taken budget cuts to fund the space station, to fund Russian participation in the station," Logsdon told The Post. "The shuttle program has served as sort of a cash cow."

NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe said the agency plans to follow each of the recommendations made by the board. Work is already underway to fix the foam insulation shedding and some other problems analyzed by the board.