Image: Deal and Gehman
Reuters file
Air Force Brig Gen. Duane Deal, at right, leans over to consult with retired Adm. Harold Gehman, chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, during a hearing last July.
updated 2/4/2004 8:04:58 PM ET 2004-02-05T01:04:58

An investigator of the Columbia disaster fears more astronauts will die if NASA rushes ahead with a space shuttle launch this fall without making all the needed repairs.

“An early launch could create the same conditions which cost us 16 lives,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Duane Deal said earlier this week. He was referring to the crews of the Columbia and Challenger and two men who died in a helicopter crash while searching for shuttle debris.

NASA’s top spaceflight official insists, however, that the plan for resuming shuttle flights as early as September or October will be driven by milestones, not schedule. He stressed Wednesday that those months are merely planning dates.

“If we don’t meet milestones, we don’t fly in September or October. It’s that simple,” said Bill Readdy, a former shuttle commander in charge of the spaceflight office.

Readdy said he appreciates that “there are concerns out there.”

“That’s normal,” he said. “It’s part of the open discussions that we have about all these items, that show that we’ve learned an awful lot here in the year since the accident, paid tremendous attention to the very thoughtful commentary and the recommendations and observations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.”

Updates from shuttle workers
Deal, commander of the 21st Space Wing at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, has investigated about a dozen military aircraft and rocket accidents. He said in an e-mail Tuesday that he stays in touch with shuttle workers who tell him pressure is building to launch this fall.

He said workers also have confided to him that there is still resistance within NASA to institutional change.

In their final report last summer, Deal and the other Columbia investigators blamed the Feb. 1, 2003, accident not only on a piece of flyaway foam, but also NASA’s broken safety culture. The general wrote a supplemental report citing numerous other safety infractions that he said could be the next O-ring or piece of foam.

Deal, said progress is lacking on some of the critical recommendations made by the investigators, especially regarding the inspection and repair of damaged shuttle wings in orbit.

A gash in the leading edge of Columbia’s left wing, from a piece of fuel-tank foam insulation at liftoff, let in the searing gases of re-entry and led to the ship’s destruction over Texas.

Deal also worries about NASA’s “definition of what is and isn’t critical damage,” which could hinder astronauts’ repair capability in orbit.

'Uneven' progress at NASA
In an interim status report last month, the task force overseeing return-to-flight activities noted that NASA’s progress on the recommendations is “uneven” and said it is too soon to predict when space shuttles might fly again.

NASA has spent more than $200 million so far on its return-to-flight efforts, and President Bush is seeking another $200 million for that in the agency’s 2005 budget.

Readdy acknowledges “the future is fuzzy” regarding the shuttle and international space station, in light of Bush’s new space initiative that puts high priority on returning astronauts to the moon by 2020.

But the president’s 2010 deadline for completing the station and retiring the shuttle should not be cause for concern among employees or an impetus for pressure, Readdy said.

“That’s still about half a dozen years off,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of work for us to do, but job one is return to flight, return to flight safely.”

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