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Can NASA's Culture Change?

NASA will not challenge any of the recommendations to be issued by the board that investigated the loss of space shuttle Columbia, the agency's deputy administrator said Tuesday.

However, deputy administrator Fred Gregory and two other NASA officials were unwilling to talk publicly about what is likely to be the board's most far-reaching recommendation: changing NASA's culture.

Gregory, associate administrator for space flight Bill Readdy and associate administrator for safety Bryan O'Connor spoke at a news conference Tuesday while visiting the Kennedy Space Center for discussions on how NASA is preparing to return the space shuttle fleet to service.

The window for launching a shuttle is March 11 to April 6, they said for the first time.

"Is March ambitious? Probably," Readdy said.

They met with members of the Stafford-Covey Return to Flight Task Group, a 27-member body chartered to help the agency implement the final recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

The task group is scheduled to meet Wednesday with the accident board chairman, retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., and hold its first public meeting Thursday.

"There will be no attempt whatsoever to argue or defend a recommendation from the CAIB," Gregory said. "The board has not published the report yet and I may have to back off a little bit ... but my assumption is that we would follow to the letter the recommendations."

Columbia was destroyed during re-entry on Feb. 1, killing all seven astronauts on board. The disaster has been blamed on a piece of foam insulation that broke off the external fuel tank during liftoff and caused a hole in the left wing.

The board's recommendations are expected to be issued at the end of the month.

Some investigation board members have said publicly that the recommendations will be fruitless if NASA doesn't change its culture for decision-making.

Board members and former NASA employees have pointed to attitudes of superiority, fear of retribution by lower-level employees, communications problems and strained relationships between key divisions of NASA as part of its difficult culture.

Gregory said he couldn't talk about plans to change that until after the investigation board issues its final report.

"It would be difficult for me to define to you what the NASA culture is," Gregory said. "As I sit here, I have three astronauts here. I suspect that if you try to determine what the culture of the three of us is, you would find that there are three different cultures here."

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