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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Minority Report Faults NASA as Compromising Safety - New York Times

Minority Report Faults NASA as Compromising Safety - New York TimesAugust 18, 2005
Minority Report Faults NASA as Compromising Safety

Seven of the 25 voting members of the group that monitored NASA's progress in making the space shuttle fleet safer after the loss of the Columbia issued a blistering minority report yesterday accusing the space agency's leadership of compromising safety to justify returning to flight.

"It is difficult to be objective based on hindsight, but it appears to us that lessons that should have been learned have not been," the minority wrote, in a document appended to the final report of the group.

Even after two and a half years of intense work to make the shuttles safer, NASA managers "lack the crucial ability to accurately evaluate how much or how little risk is associated with their decisions, particularly decisions to sidestep or abbreviate any given procedure or process," wrote the seven panelists, who included a former astronaut and a former director of the Congressional Budget Office.

Managers and officials, they went on, "must break this cycle of smugness substituting for knowledge."

The minority report, which comes a week after the successful mission of the shuttle Discovery, did not say that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration should stop flying the shuttles, and the panel's majority stated that the fleet had been made substantially safer. But the finding is a rebuke to the agency and a warning that a single flight has not solved its problems.

A spokesman for the NASA administrator, Michael D. Griffin, said yesterday that "Mike is addressing those issues," in part through a management shakeup.

The spokesman, Dean Acosta, pointed out that the minority report specifically noted that Dr. Griffin had sent engineers and managers back to the drawing board in April and delayed the launching by two months so that work on evaluating risks like liftoff debris could be more fully undertaken.

The 25-member group was established by NASA in 2003, after an independent panel investigating the Columbia disaster found that the agency's "broken safety culture" was partly at fault. Known as the Stafford-Covey Task Group, after the two former astronauts who led it, the group was charged with certifying that the Columbia accident board's recommendations had been met before the return to orbit.

The group released a summary of its final report in June, finding that NASA had substantially reduced the risks of flight.

It also found that the agency had not fully met three of the accident board's critical recommendations: calls for eliminating foam and ice debris during launching, toughening the orbiter's outer skin and developing techniques to repair a damaged craft while in orbit.

It did not endorse or warn against returning to flight, saying instead that its charter was narrowly focused on the accident board's recommendations. The decision of whether the shuttle was safe to fly, the task group said, was NASA's alone.

The finding that foam could still be a problem was borne out on the Discovery's liftoff on July 26, when a 0.9-pound piece of foam fell from the external fuel tank and narrowly missed the orbiter. NASA officials have suspended further flights until the foam problem can be more thoroughly resolved.

The commission delivered the rest of the report yesterday, along with the 19-page annex containing the minority views. In a telephone briefing with reporters, the group's co-chairman, Richard O. Covey, said the group included the annex at the request of Dr. Griffin.

Mr. Covey said the opinions of the minority had not been officially discussed within the full group because they constituted general observations about NASA culture and did not bear directly on the core mission of the group.

"It fell outside of the scope of looking at readiness for 114," he said, using NASA's official designation for the Discovery flight.

Mr. Covey cautioned against reading too much into the minority report. Other members of the full group who had long experience in complex organizations, he said, were not disturbed by NASA's approach to safety issues. For his part, he said, "I personally did not find the process, as it played out, unusual." NASA, he said, "did a very competent job."

The others, he said, saw it differently. "If you watch sausage being made, it's not always pretty," he said, "and some people are going to find it uglier than others."

The dissenters included Dr. Dan L. Crippen, the former head of the Congressional Budget Office, and Susan Morrisey Livingstone, a former under secretary of the Navy. They, and other members of the group, did not respond to requests for comment.

The subgroup criticized the tendency of NASA officials "to characterize the modified external tank as 'safer,' the 'safest ever,' or even 'fixed,' " when there was no objective data to support the claims.

It was especially critical of NASA managers for what it called "adjustment of performance standards" when targets could not be met. "When achievements are mandatory at first but become 'goals' when the going gets tough, it sends a strong message to everyone that nothing is mandatory," the group said.

Instead of committing itself to simply meet all of the 15 return-to-flight recommendations, the group said, NASA should have systematically analyzed the goals and decided which were most important and most attainable, and set priorities. Instead, they said, an all-out effort and schedule pressures caused the agency to cut corners and change goals on the way to launching.

On that, Mr. Covey agreed. "They may have done themselves a disservice," he said, speaking of NASA managers, by deciding to pursue a "blanket 'we're going to do them all' " approach.

Howard E. McCurdy, a public affairs professor at American University in Washington who has written extensively on NASA management, said the agency should heed the minority report. "This is what a lot of people have been saying for close to 20 years," Dr. McCurdy said.

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