Archive for Thursday, August 28, 2003

Culture change

August 28, 2003

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Space flight is a risky business, but NASA needs to work harder to minimize those risks.

Without the cowboy culture that inspired daredevil pilots to take unreasonable risks, the American space program probably never would have gotten off the ground.

That time is past. As harshly pointed out in the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report released this week, a culture that tolerates anything less than the highest emphasis on the safety of human space travel is no longer acceptable.

Even if every possible safety measure is employed, space travel still will be a hazardous pursuit. The least the NASA people on the ground can do is everything they possibly can to make sure astronauts safely complete their missions and return to Earth.

It's not enough to shrug their shoulders and say "it will probably be all right" or "we don't think it will be a problem." They have to take every possible step to ensure the safety of the crew.

The horrible truth is that the Columbia crew might have been saved if that policy had been the order of the day at NASA. Ground controllers knew that a piece of foam insulation had broken free and struck the Columbia's wing. But rather than take whatever measures they could to assess any damage, they simply assumed everything would be OK.

It wasn't, and seven astronauts paid for the mistake with their lives.

The obvious excuses undoubtedly will be: We didn't have enough money; we didn't have enough personnel; and even if we did know there was damage, there was no way to fix the problem. But the real issue is that NASA personnel had become complacent about the safety of space flight and assumed they could shrug off the potential damage caused by the foam.

Those who support America's space program are an enormously talented and ingenious bunch. The story of Apollo 13 comes to mind. When an explosion crippled that spacecraft, both the crew and its supporters on the ground worked around the clock to come up with the often-makeshift solutions that allowed the three astronauts to return safely to Earth.

If NASA officials had made the effort to determine the fatal damage to Columbia, it's hard to imagine that they wouldn't have been able to figure out a way to fix it. The Columbia astronauts may not have planned on a space walk, but maybe they could have made emergency repairs. Maybe another shuttle could have been launched on a rescue mission. But because NASA officials decided not to acknowledge the possible threat, no extraordinary steps were taken.

The tragedy of Columbia is compounded by the fact that these lessons should have been learned after the Challenger explosion 17 years earlier. Many of the same criticisms leveled at NASA this week also were voiced after seven Challenger crew members were killed in 1986. Now, federal officials must make sure that the warnings are heeded and made a permanent part of NASA's culture.

At least for the foreseeable future, space travel will continue to be a risky business, but, for the safety of American astronaut crews, those risks must be respected and calculated, not minimized and dismissed.

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