NASA Chief: 'We Get It'

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 AP

NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe said the space agency will, without reservation, follow the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, including a major renovation of NASA's culture.

"We get it," O'Keefe said Wednesday at a news conference. "We clearly got the point."

He said the report clearly spells out NASA's human failures and how its culture must change to assure safe human spaceflight.

"They've been clear throughout the report, repeatedly, that there must be institutional changes," O'Keefe said. "That is what we are committed to doing. ... We will go forward with great resolve to follow this blueprint and to make this a much stronger organization."

He said NASA reorganization will assure that the safety changes in the space agency culture are permanent.

The report from the investigation board suggests that fixing NASA may be harder than fixing the space shuttle.

Included in the board's 29 recommendations was a call for fundamental changes in the "culture" of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a way of doing business that has resisted change for more than two decades.

"Culture gets in the way of good practices, and good communications," the board's chairman, Ret. Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., said on CBS News' The Early Show. "It changes the rules of the organization. You can have rules written down on a piece of paper but culture causes other things to happen in informal ways, so you lose control of the process."

In the report, the board found a continuation in the modern NASA of characteristics that were blamed 17 years ago for the accident that destroyed space shuttle Challenger and killed seven astronauts. NASA had pledged to change, and did for a while, but eventually drifted back to its old ways, the report found.

By the time Columbia was launched last January, "NASA retained too many negative ... aspects of its traditional culture," according to the report, which was released Tuesday.

Former astronaut Sally Ride, first American woman in space and a member of the board, said there were "very disturbing" echoes of the Challenger disaster. NASA "put a lot of attention into solving those problems in the few years right after 1987, but those lessons seem to have been lost," she told NBC's "Today" on Wednesday.

Columbia broke apart while returning to Earth on Feb. 1 following a 16-day mission. All seven astronauts on board were killed.

The report said some of the negative aspects included flawed decision making and a tolerance by managers of abnormal events, such as the shedding of foam insulation from the shuttle's external fuel tank during launch.

Members of the board also found that communication was stifled in NASA and that the safety program often was "silent" because engineers with safety concerns were intimidated into silence.

Gehman said the panel was confident that NASA would make sure that the next few space shuttles that fly will be among the safest ever, pushed by a vigorous vigilance, zeal and attention to detail inspired by the Columbia tragedy.

But Gehman and others said they were worried that that enthusiasm will fade with time and NASA will slip into its old culture, setting the stage for another accident.

To guard against this, Gehman said the board included in its report recommendations designed to prevent the "atrophy of energy and zeal."

He added that "we have kind of fallen into a trap here of a mix between NASA overmarketing and overpromising what they can do and NASA's masters, both the Congress and the White House, demanding more than NASA can really achieve. That's a fatal trap."

Gehman stopped short of saying NASA needs new leadership, but did say the space agency needs outside help.

"I can tell you NASA cannot fix all the things that needs to be fixed in our report by themselves," he said. "NASA is going to have to have help from the Congress and the White House."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also appearing on The Early Show, said the nation needs to define its space goals.

"We wasted tens of millions in pork barrel spending that should have gone to the shuttle and other projects," McCain said.

"We can't be all things to all people," he said. "We can't launch missions to watch Earth and to Mars and continue with the international space station and do it adequately and safely."
  • Lloyd Vries

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