Skip to comments.Interviews Uncover Shuttle Program Flaws
Posted on 07/16/2003 2:39:26 PM PDT by anymouse
NASA inspectors charged with making sure space shuttles are safe to fly were forced to buy their own tools and prevented from making spot checks, a Columbia accident investigator says.
The investigator, who spoke with The Associated Press in interviews over several days, said NASA's program that oversees shuttle inspections will "take a pretty big hit" in the Columbia accident report due out in late August.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Duane Deal, one of 13 members of the board investigating the cause of the shuttle accident, says he obtained crucial information by offering confidentiality to the 72 NASA and contractor employees he interviewed over months.
"They'd be fired" if their bosses found out what they confided, said Deal. "It is not an exaggeration."
He said his findings seemed to indicate that some NASA managers were "perhaps out of touch with the realities of manned spaceflight" when it came to the level of shuttle inspections needed.
Deal said that nearly 9 out of 10 workers interviewed said the investigation board should review the space agency's quality assurance program at Kennedy Space Center (news - web sites) in Florida and other NASA installations. That unit provides oversight to ensure safe shuttle flight operations.
He called the program "poor" because the number and kinds of inspections have been cut back.
"There are some inspections that have been pulled out," he said. "It's almost universal opinion that we should be looking at these things because they are kind of final inspections that NASA, the government, the customer, should be laying their eyes on."
Mike Rein, a NASA spokesman at Kennedy, declined to respond directly to Deal's assessments, but noted that ever since the accident, the space agency has been reviewing practices in all areas and making improvements where necessary. "We're working it hard and we think it's especially important in the area of safety," he said.
Deal, who has taken part in about a dozen investigations into military aircraft and rocket accidents, said NASA quality assurance inspectors were not allowed to do everything in their job descriptions. For instance, he said, they were not allowed to do spot checks, "to just wander around and see what you can see."
He blames the NASA hierarchy for this "fairly serious" problem.
Bureaucracy also is the reason NASA quality assurance inspectors were denied the necessary tools to do their jobs, Deal said.
"They were supposed to have a nine-time magnifier and they only had a three, and it was taking them months to get a nine-time magnifier, so they went down and bought one at Home Depot," he said.
Other problems cited by workers who were interviewed at several NASA installations:
_NASA shuttle inspectors trained by the contractors they are supposed to monitor. Virtually everyone wanted more formal training, Deal said.
_NASA inspectors relying totally on a contractor database to track problem reports, because NASA had discontinued its own tracking systems.
_Hopelessly outdated test equipment that costs a lot to keep running and is not nearly as accurate as newer, digital systems.
Deal, who has degrees in both physics and psychology, got his unusually candid look by asking almost every worker: If you were king or queen for a day, what would you change at NASA? What's been gnawing at you that you would try to improve right away?
The interviews were usually held off space center property, sometimes in hotel rooms.
The investigation board as a whole has done more than 260 interviews in its quest to find out what caused Columbia to shatter over Texas in February and what caused shuttle managers to so readily discount the strike to the leading edge of the left wing by a chunk of fuel-tank foam insulation during liftoff. All seven astronauts were killed, just 16 minutes short of their Florida homecoming.
A retired shuttle operations manager who complained loudly about the cost-cutting shift from government to contractor work at Kennedy in the 1990s finds many of the flaws uncovered by Deal very familiar.
"Not much has changed," said Jose Garcia, who retired in 1999 following a 36-year NASA career.
"The quality assurance group got decimated," he said, essentially to save money.
In contrast to Garcia's openness, the workers who frankly answered Deal's king and queen questions will not be identified publicly under an agreement reached last month between the investigation board and key members of Congress.
Deal says it is amazing how many people at NASA and its contractors started voicing concern, once the Columbia accident investigation was in full swing, about the reinforced carbon panels on the leading edges of shuttle wings and the foam insulation on the external fuel tanks.
If any of these workers expressed concern about the wing panels or foam before Columbia blasted off for the final time in January, "it wasn't documented that we could find," Deal says.
Would that be a surprise? Considering the director himself is not someone you'd come to with an orbital mechanics problem or an exotic metal welding problem, one might expect to find that some other managers are also trained in management, not engineering.
That's a shame. It's not too hard to train engineers to be managers. Yeah, you have to hire a new engineer, but the old one is now a manager who has a clue about how things are done.
Engineers pick up the principles of management relatively easily. Not true the other way around.