NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe reiterated his promises to change the tainted space agency culture that led to the destruction of Columbia and the deaths of seven astronauts, telling NBC’s “Today” show on Thursday that he would foster a “culture of safety” instead. But within the space agency, engineers and managers voiced skepticism that real changes can be made.
O’Keefe said that the space agency would be reshaped to “absolutely, positively, always focus on the responsibility each of us has to make sure that if it’s not safe, we do not proceed.”
His comments on “Today” echoed earlier vows that NASA would comply with all 29 recommendations issued by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board on Tuesday. Fifteen, all technical in nature, must be implemented before space shuttles fly again.
During a news briefing on Wednesday, O’Keefe declined to say when that might happen, but he did not rule out the space agency’s launch target of next spring.
“The report covers hardware failures to be sure, but it also covers human failures and how our culture needs change to mitigate succumbing to these failings again,” O’Keefe told reporters. “We get it, clearly got the point.”
He said the agency has to focus on “those cultural procedures, those systems, the way we do business.”
In their final report, the Columbia investigators blamed the Feb. 1 tragedy not only on a chunk of flyaway foam but a deeply rooted NASA culture that had engineers relying too much on past successes and fearing to speak out about safety concerns. Safety checks and balances eroded over time, the investigators said, and shuttle managers ended up worrying more about meeting future launch dates for space station construction than assessing Columbia’s damaged wing.
O’Keefe said he accepted accountability for the schedule pressures and “everything that goes on in this agency.”
At the same time, Dave King, director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, said employees there failed to realize the danger posed by shedding pieces of fuel-tank foam insulation and took responsibility for the technical cause of the disaster. He also announced that the manager of the external tank project, Jerry Smelser, had been removed from his position and would retire by the end of the year.
Smelser pushed for the continuation of shuttle launches following a foam strike to one of Atlantis’ booster rockets last fall, contending in charts that the tank “is safe to fly with no new concerns and no added risk.” His charts also contained erroneous information, which King said was an “honest mistake” and not an effort to downplay the potential threat.
O’Keefe said he has asked the investigation board’s chairman, retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., for advice on advisers to help repair NASA’s broken culture. Gehman sought the opinions of experts in institutional culture during the nearly seven months of investigation.
“There is no one-trick pony at this,” O’Keefe said. “It is not something that happens simply because I send out a memo, and I’m not a Pollyanna on that point at all. It is something that really requires, I think, constant, unrelenting diligence.”
O’Keefe said no employee who speaks up about safety concerns, even to outsiders, will be reprimanded in any way.
“We get it, and that’s what message has been transmitted and understood by every single leader and senior official in this agency,” he said. “We need to promote precisely that attitude.”
The board recommended that NASA set up several new safety-oriented entities:
An independent Technical Engineering Authority to assure all safety standards are met before each launch. Its engineers would vigorously investigate any abnormal events. With Columbia, engineers knew of the foam problems, but but continued to fly because they were convinced, even without proof, that it posed no risk.
An Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, with powerful authority over the space shuttle program. It would have the power to stop launches if safety issues were unresolved, and would not take scheduling needs into account.
A Space Shuttle Integration Office to monitor quality and assure that quality is maintained in equipment, testing, parts and design changes.
The board said NASA should be required to submit to Congress annual reports on the progress of their changes.
Will changes be made?
On Wednesday, Gehman reiterated that any change must come from the top — meaning O’Keefe.
“It’s going to take both organizational change and strong leadership to change the culture, and NASA’s going to have some help from Congress and the White House — and even then it will be hard,” Gehman said in an interview.
Former astronaut Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman in space and a member of the board, said there were “very disturbing” echoes of the Challenger disaster. NASA “put a lot of attention into solving those problems in the few years right after 1987, but those lessons seem to have been lost,” she said Wednesday on the “Today” show.
Within NASA’s ranks, a certain degree of cynicism exists over the ability of the agency and its senior managers to embrace fundamental change, despite the report. Highly critical comments have come from engineers and others who call NASA management practices “intimidating”; some told NBC News that senior managers are “in denial” as they confront the sweeping mandates of the report.
Their concerns largely hinge on the difficulty in defining NASA’s exact role. A stagnation of the agency’s inner workings, some note, has come to clash starkly with its purpose of pushing the frontier of science, technology and exploration. As such, safety is not the only issue at the core of a cultural overhaul; NASA’s vitality needs a makeover as well, and many engineers worry that the message may not sink in with NASA senior managers.
Tony Verrengia, who worked 20 years for NASA in the Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle programs, said he recalled the space agency’s response to the Apollo 1 launch pad fire in 1967 and the 1986 Challenger accident.
“It’s probably going to be the same, where they’re trying to aggressively correct all these things that they were asked to do,” said Verrengia, now retired. “The fundamental problem is that they have not had the kind of support they need to keep manned spaceflight going at the right level.”
Employees from NASA’s Johnson Space Center who gathered Tuesday at The Outpost Tavern, a Houston-area bar, were skeptical that Congress would provide the cash that the space agency needs to make improvements.
The employees, who did not want to give their names for fear of losing their jobs, told The Associated Press that the report was correct and that a flawed safety culture has been a real problem for some time. They also echoed the findings that problems were caused by flawed attempts to meet unrealistic goals of shuttle performance.
During his session with journalists, O’Keefe said he is mindful of the board’s observations that NASA has a history of resisting change and backsliding on safety.
“All I can offer is, I wasn’t here at that time, and a lot of folks who were in senior management and leadership positions were not in those capacities at the time, either,” he said. “So we’ve got to move forward ... not turn on just the individual personalities involved, but instead become an institutional set of values and disciplines that will withstand the test of time.”
NBC News producer Dan Molina and The Associated Press contributed to this report.