working on Discovery
Matt Stroshane  /  Getty Images
Kennedy Space Center workers prepare to work on Discovery late last month in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
By NBC News space analyst
Special to MSNBC

After a week of private and often heated internal debate, the independent panel appointed to oversee NASA's relaunch of the space shuttle appears unable to complete its final report on whether the agency has complied with safety recommendations.

The Return to Flight Task Group, better known as the "Stafford-Covey committee" after its leading members, does not have the authority to stop NASA's launch schedule, or even recommend that it be delayed — at least, not officially. But if the panel does not sign off on the safety report, NASA officials will be put in an awkward position right before the first scheduled space shuttle launch in more than two years.

Seven months after the space shuttle Columbia and its crew were lost on Feb. 1, 2003, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board published an in-depth analysis of both the technical and underlying cultural flaws that led to the disaster and issued specific prescriptions for hardware, operational, and cultural fixes. The task group was organized by NASA a year ago as a way to independently monitor the agency's progress in meeting those recommendations.

A scheduled public meeting to discuss the remaining issues before the task group was cancelled last week, surprising observers. Rumors began spreading about major disagreements erupting between board members at a private plenary meeting.

Ostensibly, the delay was due to NASA’s tardiness in providing required test data, but the larger question seemed to be whether the task group will have enough time to properly assess the test data, whenever it does show up.

Behind closed space doors
A member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board said he was told the dispute at the private meeting was more alarming than just a bureaucratic delay.

“I heard things went non-linear on the first day when [task group member] Dan Crippen basically led a revolt," against Tom Stafford and Richard Covey, the two former astronauts  leading the group, the CAIB member told on condition of anonymity. The revolt's basic premise, this source said, was that NASA was not ready to fly since “none of the hard recommendations have been met and NASA is ‘diddling’ with the numbers to make it appear they are working.”

A short-notice meeting held in Washington on Monday between the Stafford-Covey group leaders and NASA managers lasted well into mid-afternoon. NASA spokesman Allard Beutel characterized the meeting as "a status check, an administrative meeting to find out where they are in getting NASA’s information they need.”

Sources close to the Stafford-Covey group who spoke with on condition their names not be used said a new plenary meeting had been scheduled for April 22-23. At that time, the group will review NASA safety reports now being completed. Debris damage studies are to be delivered late this week, and on April 14 NASA will conduct a test of Discovery's external fuel tank as the shuttle sits on the launch pad in Florida

By this point, shuttle program veterans have said, thousands of workers will be deeply engaged in the momentum towards the Discovery launch, the window for which opens on May 15. “Launch fever” is not a frame of mind conducive to dispassionate consideration of ambiguous or unsatisfactory situations.

The nature of the task group’s final report, and how NASA will use it, is unclear. Reportedly, there is serious discussion on fundamental questions such as the definition of "compliance," "verification," and other terms. Even if the group lists unsatisfied CAIB recommendations, NASA may decide that those particular CAIB prescriptions do not apply to the first shuttle flight, but only later ones.

Pressure and precedents
The task group had originally wanted to have 30 days between its reaching a final conclusion and the date of the shuttle launch. The schedule pressure of NASA having to consider the group’s recommendations as part of its own readiness review a week before launch may not allow sufficient time for thorough deliberation, observers have privately said.

The quality of NASA’s decision-making process is further threatened by the current leadership transition at the agency. The new administrator, Michael Griffin, has yet to be confirmed. Even if he were to take office prior to the shuttle launch date, he would be required to make perhaps the most important decision in the history of the shuttle program with only a few days notice.

Also worrisome to many is the fact that NASA’s current headquarters leadership consists essentially of the very same individuals who were in charge in January 2003 when the judgment was made that it was safe to fly the Columbia shuttle, and later, that it was safe to disregard multiple clues that significant damage might have been done to the thermal protection system during launch.

NASA and the Stafford-Covey group are not getting tied up with empty semantics. They are wrestling with the fundamental principle of flight safety, that a potentially hazardous condition must be proven to be safe. It is foolhardy to complacently assume it is safe until its danger can be proved. That attitude has led to hideous catastrophes in space history, and in enterprises on Earth as well.

The overwhelming consensus among space workers is that the next shuttle mission will be far safer, and that the memory of the Columbia disaster has motivated everyone to be especially careful. But this is almost always an intuitive judgment, not a measured, calibrated conclusion of an explicit process. It is faith and hope and anecdotes, not a certified, legalistic determination.

That may be why some task group members, and other observers both inside the shuttle program and outside, are particularly concerned that the existing safety process be followed through to its logical end, no matter how cumbersome it has turned out to be, and how long it takes. Creating shortcuts and "back doors" now would, some believe, gut the effectiveness of future safety review processes after the first few shuttle missions have succeeded, after the subverted safety process seems to have worked, and after public and political pressure is off.

James Oberg, space analyst for NBC News, spent 22 years at the Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer.

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