updated 8/18/2005 2:11:06 PM ET 2005-08-18T18:11:06

NASA skipped some shuttle safety improvements as it tried to meet unrealistic launch dates for the first flight since the Columbia tragedy, some members of an oversight panel said in a scathing critique.

Poor leadership also made shuttle Discovery’s return to space more complicated, expensive and prolonged than it needed to be, the seven task force members said.

In fact, some of the “disturbing” traits that contributed to the Columbia tragedy — like smug, overbearing managers influencing key decisions — were still present in the months leading up to Discovery’s launch in July, the panelists said.

“We expected that NASA leadership would set high standards for post-Columbia work. ... We were, overall disappointed,” they wrote.

The critique by the seven was included in the final report of the full 26-member task force, which was released Wednesday.

At a news conference Thursday, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said he knew part of the task force had serious concerns, and he urged members to “speak their minds” and include the criticism in the group’s official report.

“When I was asked the question, ’Do you want to hear this stuff,’ the only answer I could ever give would be, ’Yeah, I want to hear it,”’ Griffin said. “We do not shrink in NASA from criticism of our engineering processes, our decisions or anything else. We will listen to it, we’ll evaluate and we’ll make a decision and we’ll move on.”

The seven critics were a former shuttle astronaut, a former undersecretary of the Navy, a former Congressional Budget Office director, a former moon rocket engineer, a retired nuclear engineer and two university professors.

The task force was assigned to monitor NASA’s progress in meeting the recommendations set forth by the Columbia accident investigators. The group concluded in late June in an advance summary — just a month before Discovery’s liftoff — that the space agency failed to satisfy three of the 15 return-to-flight recommendations.

Those three failed recommendations were arguably the most critical: an inability to prevent dangerous pieces of foam and ice from breaking off the fuel tank during launch; an inability to fix any damage to the shuttle in orbit; and a failure to make the shuttle less vulnerable to debris strikes.

As it turned out, a large, potentially deadly chunk of foam insulation broke off Discovery’s modified fuel tank during liftoff on July 26. Unlike in Columbia’s tragic case, the piece did not hit Discovery. Nevertheless, NASA grounded the entire shuttle fleet.

The next shuttle mission had been scheduled for September, but now is expected to take place no earlier than March. NASA plans to repair the area of the tank that lost the big piece of foam, and that will take time, said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s new space operations chief. The cause of the foam loss is still not understood.

“NASA needs to learn the lessons of its past ... lessons provided at the cost of the lives of 17 astronauts,” the seven task force members said, referring to the seven killed aboard Columbia and 10 others who died in the Challenger and Apollo 1 accidents years earlier.

The co-chairmen of the task force, retired Apollo astronaut Thomas Stafford and retired shuttle astronaut Richard Covey, refused to comment Wednesday on the observations of individual panel members.

In their 20-page critique, the seven said NASA should have done detailed engineering reviews of the Columbia accident investigators’ recommendations before committing to short-term launch dates. That way, they said, the space agency would have better understood the foam loss and seriously considered alternative approaches, such as a completely redesigned fuel tank or hardening of the shuttle’s thermal skin.

Discovery’s original launch date, before Columbia’s catastrophic return on Feb. 1, 2003, was March 1 of that year. That date ended up changing 14 times.

As early as September 2003, NASA told the task force that some technical work was not being performed because it could not meet the launch schedule, the seven members said. “Too often we heard the lament: ’If only we’d known we were down for two years, we would have approached this very differently.”’

On Thursday, both Griffin and Gerstenmaier said they would avoid setting multiple launch dates for the next mission.

“That’s why we’re going out as far as March and giving ourselves what we hope is plenty of time to evaluate where we are,” Griffin said.

The seven task force members noted that personalities were allowed to dominate over process. “Roles, positions and strength of personality often determined critical outcomes more than facts and analysis,” they said.

The seven also blasted NASA’s assessment of shuttle risks.

One outcome of all this, the seven said, was out-of-control costs. “At the end of 2½ years and $1.5 billion or more, it is not clear what has been accomplished,” they said.

Griffin, who took over NASA just four months ago, pointed out that both he and Gerstenmaier are new to their jobs and that it is too soon to speculate on any changes that might be necessary in the shuttle program.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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