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Shuttle investigator fears another accident

Submitted by Arthur - N1ORC

Aug. 1, 2003, 2:15PM

Shuttle investigator fears another accident

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A Nobel Prize-winning member of the board
investigating the space shuttle Columbia disaster says he fears NASA
won't change its culture, possibly leading to yet another accident. 

The "same faulty reasoning" that led to the 1986 Challenger accident
also led to Columbia, said Douglas Osheroff, one of the 13 board members
wrapping up the report on the Columbia accident. 

"No matter how good the report looks, if we don't do something to change
the way NASA makes its decisions, I would say that we will have been
whistling in the wind," Osheroff told The Associated Press in a
telephone interview this week. 

"At the moment, I'm in a state of depression," he said from his office
at Stanford University. 

Several Columbia board members have said the space agency must make
dramatic changes in its culture, but Osheroff is pessimistic. 

"Look, I think it's been clear for a long time that what has to change
is not NASA's policies and procedures or management structure. I suppose
they have to change as well, but it's culture," he said. "Culture is a
very funny thing, of course. It is the way people intuitively behave to
a situation." 

Just last week, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe vowed to change an
agency atmosphere that has made some workers fearful of speaking up
about potentially life-threatening hazards. 

But Osheroff's own experience tells him how hard it will be to get NASA
to change. 

"I was at Bell Laboratories at the time of the breakup of the Bell
system, and they had industrial psychologists come in trying to change
the culture," he said. "I don't think it was at all successful, at least
certainly not in the research area where I was." 

In NASA's case, Osheroff and other board members have noted the
similarities between February's Columbia accident, in which seven
astronauts died on their way home, and the Challenger tragedy, which
killed seven on their way to space. 

Challenger's loss also led to a hard-hitting report on NASA. 

Yet, Osheroff notes, "the same faulty reasoning led to both accidents,
right? I mean, in both cases, it was a failure to recognize the
potential hazards posed by an in-flight anomaly." 

With Challenger, faulty O-ring seals in the solid-fuel rocket boosters
were to blame. With Columbia, it was foam insulation that broke off the
fuel tank and gouged a hole in the shuttle's left wing, letting in the
searing gases of re-entry. 

In both cases, worried engineers were not heard -- or were ignored. 

Foam repeatedly broke off shuttles during launch, but the problem was
never fixed. With Columbia's final launch on Jan. 16 the biggest foam
chunk ever struck with deadly force. 

Boston College sociology professor Diane Vaughan, author of "The
Challenger Launch Decision," sympathizes with the worried Osheroff. 

"Challenger, like Columbia, was an institutional failure. That is, it
wasn't just a matter of the decision-making structure. It had to do with
the entire organization and its culture, and the critical parts of that
really didn't get changed," Vaughan said Thursday night. 

She suggested NASA's leaders "may not understand how their organization
works and therefore may not know how to fix it, and it's up to the board
in its report to point them in the right direction." 

>From the start, NASA head O'Keefe has promised to carry out all of the
accident board's recommendations. Already, he has begun setting up an
engineering and safety center in Virginia to take an independent look at
a wide range of problems and trends. 

But Osheroff calls it "easy to be receptive six months after a major
accident. The question is whether it's going to last." 

The physicist, who won the Nobel in 1996, was named late to the Columbia
board after the chairman decided he wanted some heavyweight scientists.
Osheroff was a student of the late Richard Feynman, another
Nobel-winning physicist who was an outspoken NASA critic when he served
on the Challenger commission. 

Columbia's accident board chairman, retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr.,
declined to respond to Osheroff's remarks, and attempts to reach other
board members were unsuccessful. (Members have been urged to keep a low
profile until the report is out.) 

But one panel member who spoke on condition of anonymity called
Osheroff's points "very valid." 

"It's a culture that's been built up since the beginning of the shuttle
program, probably," said the board member, who did not want to be
identified for fear of upsetting Gehman. "They're going to have to break
some glass to get it back to where it needs to be." 

NASA's chief is bracing for harsh criticism and has been warning
employees it will be "really ugly." 

"I'm trying to find the Kevlar suit that I had somewhere," O'Keefe told
Kennedy Space Center workers earlier this summer. 

Key members of Congress have asked Gehman to reconvene his panel in a
year to see if NASA is heeding its advice, a suggestion the members
embrace given NASA's tendency to shelve shuttle program reports. 

"NASA takes it and says, 'Thanks for your input into manned
spaceflight,' and then nothing happens," Air Force Brig. Gen. Duane
Deal, a board member, observed at a news conference in mid-July. 

Osheroff worries that NASA's new task force that will assess when
shuttles can return to space may feel pressure to hurry because of the
needs of the international space station. That's why it's vital to
reconvene the board as often as necessary, he said.

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