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NASA safety official defends himself

The director of NASA’s new engineering and safety center responded to criticism of his decision-making in the Columbia disaster.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The director of NASA’s new engineering and safety center defended his job promotion Friday amid congressional criticism of his decision-making in the Columbia disaster. Ralph Roe along with some other shuttle officials did not seek spy satellite pictures of Columbia’s damaged left wing back in January, despite requests from lower-level engineers. At the time, Roe managed the shuttle vehicle engineering office at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

On Friday, in his first news conference since the tragedy, Roe said he and everyone else learned difficult lessons from Columbia’s doomed mission.

“We had our friends and colleagues on board, so it has all marked us and scarred us differently, but in a very hard way,” he said. “We all will take those lessons and ensure that we do our part to learn from what happened during Columbia and try to do our best to improve the agency and make spaceflight safer.”

He added: “Sometimes as human beings, we often learn more from our failures than from our successes.”

Disapproval voiced
U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, repeated his disapproval Friday of NASA’s selection of Roe. The space agency’s administrator, Sean O’Keefe, created the safety center following the Feb. 1 disaster and asked Roe to lead it.

“Here we go again,” said Hollings, D-S.C. “Mr. O’Keefe’s decision to promote Mr. Roe, who was at the very center of the agency’s controversial safety decisions, just reinforces my belief that NASA cannot reform itself. We need a truly independent commission, like the one I’ve proposed, to ensure fundamental change in NASA’s safety culture.”

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board faulted a broken safety culture at NASA, along with the piece of insulating foam that gouged the ship’s left wing during liftoff. The shuttle shattered over Texas during re-entry, and all seven astronauts were killed.

Roe and Roy Bridges, director of Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., home to the new safety center, said outside experts will be consulted on a case-by-case basis. In addition, safety center engineers will be rotated in and out every few years from other NASA installations to provide a fresh perspective, and will report to NASA’s top safety office, not the program under review.

Confidence expressed
Bridges, a former astronaut who until last summer directed Kennedy Space Center, expressed confidence in Roe, a former shuttle launch director.

“You really want somebody who’s been down there in the trenches and has that huge burden on their shoulders up here directing things,” said Bridges, who sought Roe for the position. “So in this particular case, I think the choice was exactly correct. Ralph Roe is the man of the hour for this job.”

The safety center has a $45 million budget for its first year, much of which will be spent on tests and analyses. It eventually will look over technical details for the resumption of shuttle flights, targeted for no earlier than next fall.