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An Accident Waiting To Happen?

<b>Ed Bradley</b> Questions Officials On Safety, Budget Issues

The investigation into the disaster that killed all seven astronauts aboard the shuttle Columbia is just starting, but already there are serious concerns being raised about whether the loss was a freak occurrence or accident waiting to happen.

60 Minutes Correspondent Ed Bradley reports an aerospace advisory panel told Congress last year that the repeated postponement of safety upgrades inevitably increased risks of operating the space shuttle. The panel at that time claimed that NASA's approach to safety was planting the seeds for future danger.

Marcia Smith, senior analyst for space policy research for the U.S. Congress, says some of the warnings had to do with work-force issues and how the engineers and technicians who have worked on these aging spacecraft since the 1970s are retiring or moving into other jobs.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who flew a space shuttle mission before the Challenger disaster in 1986, has been warning congress for years about unsafe conditions on the shuttle conditions caused by a lack of funding. He told Bradley the Clinton administration has been starving NASA for a decade.

"It's incredible that the needed safety upgrades to the space shuttle have been delayed and dragged out," he said.

Bradley asked Bill Readdy, assistant NASA administrator, whether Columbia's tragedy had anything to do with budget cuts. "Quite frankly," Readdy told him, "we don't know exactly what happened over Texas yesterday and so we really couldn't speculate on that."

Many people are now asking questions about a piece of insulation that fell off the shuttle's fuel tank during the launch and hit its left wing. During the mission, NASA didn't think it was a cause for concern. And according to most people in NASA, launch has always been considered the most dangerous portion of the flight, especially since the Challenger exploded on takeoff in 1986. Until Now, the shuttle had never had a problem landing.

"Launch is what's terrifying," said a former astronaut. "If I had to rate a scale one to ten the fear factor of a whole shuttle profile, from one to ten I would put launch at eleven and up in orbit a one or two, fairly relaxed, and then on reentry maybe a three or four."

The shuttle fleet is grounded until NASA can assure that the remaining orbiters are safe. The shuttle is scheduled to service both the international space station, which has three astronauts on board, and the Hubbel space telescope in the next year. But those missions aren't the only questions facing NASA.

In the issue of manned space flight versus unmanned space flight, many believe the risks involved are not worth the benefits. Others say human beings are essential to space exploration. There also is the question of whether humans are needed to get budget dollars from Congress.

Whatever the reason for this disaster, the facts will be revealed in coming months as the families and countrymen of the seven astronauts mourn their loss and ponder the future.