Shuttle panel lays NASA's faults bare
The Challenger accident was, in a sense, no accident. The report of the Rogers Commission on the space disaster finds that the accident grew out of an environment in the shuttle program that made such an event, sooner or later, predictable.
In tracking down the hardware failure that turned Challenger into a catastrophic fireball four months ago, the commission pursued a trail of memos, reports, and witnesses that led it through ``flawed decisions,'' ignored warnings, misplaced priorities, and large-scale organizational problems.
The shuttle program painted by the report is ``not a pretty picture,'' one space-policy analyst says.
Outside experts are rating the Rogers report highly for pegging both the technical causes of the accident and the management weaknesses that led to it. But they also note that while the commission has answered the narrow questions well, the larger ones that the disaster's aftermath brought into focus remain unsettled.
The question, says Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D) of Michigan, is not just of ``fixing the obvious things, but how do we deal with the space-policy questions that are now upon us.''
Mr. Riegle, the ranking Democrat on the Space Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, hopes to probe further into the Rogers Commission recommendations and how to carry them out in Senate hearings -- and to avoid a congressional rehash of territory well explored by the commission.
``It fixed something that badly needed fixing,'' says space-policy analyst John Logsdon at George Washington University of the report. ``It will never be possible to do something and ignore safety again.'' But the report just deals with how to run the shuttle program safely. ``It begs the fundamental question of what do we want to use it for,'' he adds.
To many NASA-watchers and space-policy experts, the root causes of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's safety problems lie in the policy questions beyond the scope of the commission report -- policy that put an unrealistic pressure on NASA to run a still-developing technology routinely.
``The fascinating thing,'' notes John Pike, space-policy analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, ``is the way this all cascades'' from chapter to chapter in moving from smaller to larger causes of the accident. At the top of the cascade, he says, is not having enough money and a bias against hearing bad news.
``By the time you get to Chapter 8,'' he says, ``you've indicted the way the whole program was being run. But there's no subsequent chapter asking: `Well, why was this happening?' ''
The next chapter may be written in Congress. Both houses plan hearings this week, beginning today. Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D) of New Jersey, say that the space agency's relationship with Congress has changed for good. Whereas once Congress let NASA requests go unchallenged, now it will be skeptical, he says.
``A lot of this stuff can be at least indirectly traced to Congress because they didn't have enough oversight'' of NASA programs, Mr. Pike says.
Senator Riegle agrees. But to tackle the large questions, he suggests that a special panel of lawmakers and administration officials spend the next six months working through how to set the American space program back on its feet.
``There are times in government when the normal pace of the way things work is insufficient,'' he says.
The recommendations of the commission -- which are all brief and general -- reached from the fixing of flawed booster joints to difficult management changes. It is the broad management shifts that are critical, Pike says.
The commission was impressed early in hearings that concerns about the safety of a cold-weather launch never reached the head of the shuttle program. This was found to be part of a pattern at Marshall Space Flight Center, the center of NASA's rocket propulsion work, where the tendency is to handle problems internally rather than communicate them.
So the commission is recommending that the shuttle program manager have more authority and tighter control over the shuttle program, spread among several massive centers. It also urges that Marshall break out of its isolation, whether through ``changes of personnel, organization, indoctrination, or all three.''
``Those are the real ones,'' Pike says. ``If you don't implement those, all this other stuff is going to unravel.''
The commission is also recommending that NASA create an Office of Safety, Reliability, and Quality Assurance headed by an associate administrator to report directly to NASA's top executive. ``The commission was surprised to realize after many hours of testimony,'' the report says, ``that NASA's safety staff was never mentioned.''
The strongest language in the report belongs to commissioner Richard P. Feynman, the Nobel laureate physicist from the California Institute of Technology. Faulting NASA's risk calculations, he calls the launch decisions ``a kind of Russian roulette.'' Dr. Feynman's own harshly worded chapter will be published later as an appendix, after some softening of tone at the insistence of chairman William P. Rogers.
NASA has already begun shifting personnel in anticipation of the report, and more shake-ups are expected.
``If NASA follows those recommendations,'' says Dr. Logsdon, ``it could never again attempt to be a commercially viable program or ever attempt high launch rates.''