Shuttle Safety Team Was Hamstrung

Space shuttle Endeavour returns to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Saturday Dec. 7, 2002. Police and fire department vehicles are shown in center. Endeavour's return was delayed by weather for a record three straight days
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.

The investigator, who spoke with The Associated Press in interviews over several days, said NASA's program that oversees shuttle inspections will "take a pretty big hit" in the Columbia accident report due out in late August.

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.

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, but noted that ever since the accident, the space agency has been reviewing practices in all areas and making improvements where necessary. "We're working it hard and we think it's especially important in the area of safety," he said.

While the upcoming investigation board's report will detail the panel's findings on the cause of the Columbia accident — apparently a foam panel that came loose during liftoff and damaged a shuttle wing — it will also spend ample time on management problems.

Deal said earlier that 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. The board has reportedly found dangerous flaws with several shuttle parts, as well as serious budget shortfalls that forced the agency to cut corners.

NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe this week said his agency has anticipated the critique and is prepared to move quickly to make improvements so that the shuttle fleet, grounded since the accident, can return to the skies within six to nine months.

Deal, who has taken part in about a dozen investigations into military aircraft and rocket accidents, said NASA quality assurance inspectors were not allowed to do everything in their job descriptions. For instance, he said, they were not allowed to do spot checks, "to just wander around and see what you can see."

In addition, Deal says NASA quality assurance inspectors "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."

NASA inspectors had to rely totally on a contractor database to track problem reports, because NASA had discontinued its own tracking systems, and had hopelessly outdated test equipment.

When Columbia returned to Earth on Feb. 1, the 3,000 degrees of re-entry heat entered and destroyed the left wing. The spacecraft came apart, scattering pieces over East Texas and Louisiana.

Grim details have emerged about the last moments of the doomed crew: It now appears the astronauts may have lived beyond the moment mission control lost contact with the spacecraft, The New York Times reports.

The paper cites experts from NASA and the investigation board, who have been examining an on-board sensor recording system that kept working far into the shuttle's break-up.

Even as the left wing disintegrated, the shuttle's aft engine compartment, fuselage, right wing and crew cabin were essentially intact. All three electricity-producing fuel cells were operating and the life support system appeared to be functioning normally.

"How long the astronauts might have survived as the crew module plunged earthward will never be known," CBS News space analyst Bill Harwood reports. "Sadly, they almost certainly had time to understand their fate.

CBS News Space Consultant William Harwood has covered America's space program full time for nearly 20 years, focusing on space shuttle operations, planetary exploration and astronomy. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood provides up-to-the-minute space reports for CBS News and regularly contributes to Spaceflight Now and The Washington Post.