INCREDIBLE as it may seem, NASA has yet to learn fully the lesson of the Challenger accident. It's a simple lesson - put safety first, ensure full communication among launch officials concerning possible hazards, don't cut corners with go/no-go launch criteria. Failure to heed these caveats lay behind the Challenger accident. Now NASA's own official inquiry board has cited this as the underlying cause of the March 26 loss of a $78 million Atlas/Centaur rocket and the $83 million Navy communications satellite it carried. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration doesn't need this kind of trouble. It's struggling to rebuild United States space leadership at a time when such leadership has passed to the Soviet Union. It faces a Congress willing to support this effort but skeptical of NASA's ability to effectively pursue it. The kind of laxity that the latest accident investigation has revealed only strengthens such skepticism.
The physical cause of the rocket malfunction most likely was a lightning strike that upset the memory of an engine control computer. This sent the rocket out of control so that the range safety officer had to destroy it. The rocket should not have been launched into that kind of weather.
To quote the board: ``The most probable cause of the mission failure was launching the AC-67 vehicle into atmospheric conditions conducive to triggered lightning and in violation of the established criteria used to avoid potential electrical hazards.''
The board noted that there were a number of indications of unsuitable weather well before the launch. ``Yet,'' it said, ``the real import of these indications escaped the launch team because of imprecise communications, lack of awareness, or both.''
In fact, according to astronaut Robert L. Crippen, deputy director of national space transportation systems at NASA, the real cause of this sloppiness was preoccupation with the space shuttle. Launch safety procedures and criteria are being tightened significantly at Cape Canaveral. That includes sharpening up the weather-related decisions. But this effort has been oriented mainly toward shuttle launches. Crippen explained, ``We were working a shuttle problem, not a total launch problem,'' according to the industry journal Aviation Week and Space Technology. This was in spite of a warning of faulty launch management issued by another review board six months before the accident.
Preoccupation with shuttle launches. Neglect of a warning of management problems. Lack of coordination among launch team members. Violation of launch safety criteria. Failure of key managers to challenge a questionable launch decision. Shades of the Challenger accident!
Will NASA never learn? This time it can't share the blame with claims of ``inadequate funding,'' media pressure, or congressional concern about maintaining a launch schedule. Preoccupation with the shuttle and the need to get it flying again has overshadowed the overall launch situation in NASA thinking, to say nothing of the overarching need for a balanced space program.
NASA officials pay lip service to these larger issues. But as Mr. Crippen's comment reveals, the shuttle - and, one could add, the space station - remains the apple of the agency's eye. If there is congressional and media pressure on NASA now, it's pressure to try to get the agency to broaden its vision. NASA has to give the same top priority to launch operations for unmanned rockets that it gives to shuttles.
There is a national consensus, which includes NASA management, that the agency must use a balanced fleet of both unmanned and manned launch vehicles. Indeed, NASA has just announced plans for five unmanned launches to help get its space science program back on schedule.
Beyond this, the agency must come up with a vigorous program of new space science missions or resign itself to being an ``also ran'' in this field. Space scientists from Western Europe, Japan, and the United States made this point strongly during a meeting at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., last week. They pointed out that the Soviet Union now has a commanding lead in solar system exploration, especially with several authorized Mars missions. Tight budgets are restricting European and Japanese efforts. Only strong US leadership can revitalize Western space science.
NASA not only has to propose a program to do this, it has to persuade the administration to adopt it and Congress to fund it. This very likely will entail a substantial increase in NASA's budget. The agency will have a hard enough job selling such a program without handicapping itself by repeating past mistakes.
A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.