The White House and Congress must share some blame for the space shuttle accident that killed seven astronauts, the chairman of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board said Thursday. Ret. Navy Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr. told the House Science Committee that following past tragedies, NASA has made management changes, but that the space agency responds to budgetary and other pressures by reverting to practices that are less safe.
“After a tragedy, they take a whole lot of management actions,” Gehman said. “But over the years forces begin to act on them. Some are budget pressures from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue” — a reference to Congress and the White House.
He said the space shuttle management gets squeezed by budget pressures and schedules and takes money away from some measures that assure safety.
“We find this to be unhealthy,” Gehman said.
Gehman and three members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board fielded questions from the committee. They told lawmakers that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration must change its culture if the shuttle is to fly safely again. They also said the nation needs to establish a vision of specific goals for the human spaceflight program.
In response to questions, Gehman said that the board found that NASA’s budget, which is controlled by the White House and by Congress, played a role in the Feb. 1 accident.
“A constricted and squeezed budget was a contributing factor” in the accident, Gehman said.
In response, the committee chairman, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert said, “We share some of the responsibility, but changes are needed” in NASA.
Boehlert, R-N.Y., said it was NASA management that made decisions to shift money around in the agency and to build an internal system that put less emphasis on safety.
He said even if NASA “got a blank check” some of the agency’s decisions that contributed to the Columbia accident would not have been affected.
Just as he did during testimony before a Senate committee on Wednesday, Gehman said that the board believes that there should be a personal accounting for the managers who had a role in the Columbia accident.
Escape system mulled
On Wednesday, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe sidestepped questions about who should be held personally accountable, but he noted that 15 of the top management positions in the space shuttle program have been filled with new people since the Feb. 1 Columbia accident.
O’Keefe said he did not believe the people were guilty of anything but bad judgment and that “there is no principle of accountability that says there has to be a public execution.”
Rep. Ralph Hall, D-Texas, the ranking Democrat on the House committee, said there was a need to build into the space shuttle some sort of escape system. He said after the 1986 space shuttle Challenger accident that also claimed seven astronauts, NASA leaders with the support of Congress concluded that changes had made the shuttle safe. Yet, the Columbia accident showed that was not true, he said.
Sheila E. Widnall, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and a board member, said that an escape system for the shuttle would be a difficult engineering project.
The space shuttle, she said, flies through “a very challenging environment” on its return to Earth, reaching extreme speeds and encountering temperatures exceeding 3,000 degrees, hot enough to destroy most materials.
Columbia came apart while returning to Earth. The investigative board concluded that the heat protection panel on the craft’s left wing was broken by the high-speed impact with a piece of foam insulation that peeled off the shuttle’s propellant tank during launch. The extreme heat of re-entry is thought to have penetrated the broken panel and melted the wing from the inside, causing the whole vehicle to come apart.