Shuttle disaster report 'falls short over safety'

The Columbia shuttle disaster investigation board did not go far enough in its recommended safety changes, one of the investigators has said.

The Columbia shuttle disaster investigation board did not go far enough in its recommended safety changes, one of the investigators has said.

US Air Force Brig Gen Duane Deal’s comments came in a supplemental report that urges Nasa to strengthen space shuttle inspections and correct mechanical problems that were unrelated to the Columbia disaster, but could cause another.

He said he felt compelled to highlight these issues after they ended up being buried, downplayed or dropped from the final report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

The Columbia space shuttle disintegrated over Texas as it returned to Earth on February 1, killing all seven astronauts on board.

“I feel an obligation that if I know of something that could cause the next accident that’s waiting to happen and I didn’t bring it forward, that’s when I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror,” Deal said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Deal stressed that his 10-page supplement, which will appear in a forthcoming volume of appendices, was not a dissenting opinion. It started out as a minority opinion a week ago, he acknowledged, but many of the 12 other board members jumped on board.

“We are all very proud of this report,” he said of the recommendations made public on Tuesday. “We think it does, in fact, what we wanted it to do.

“Some people think it ought to do more, some think we’re too blunt. But I think there’s almost universal agreement that our 207 days of work were good.”

But given Nasa’s reputation of ignoring reports, Deal said he was sceptical the space agency would fulfil all 29 recommendations in the full report, let alone the ones referred to as observations.

Deal, for example, worries that Nasa will give short shrift to the report’s 10th chapter, titled “Other Significant Observations”. The observations include corroding shuttle parts, brittle bolts that support wing panels, failures in the system that releases the shuttle from the pad at liftoff and weakened rings attaching the fuel tank to the booster rockets.

The chapter also touches on crew escape and survival but makes no recommendations. Instead, Deal urges Nasa to come up with ways to better protect the crew cabin in an emergency.

A small amount of additional insulation between the inside walls of the cabin and its outer shell might provide the heat protection needed for it to retain its structural integrity, Deal wrote.

“I believe in this one set of circumstances, more insulation may have helped” the Columbia astronauts survive the disintegration of their ship, he said.

Instead of observations, some of the items should have been recommendations, he wrote, and one – the need for an independent review of Kennedy Space Centre’s shuttle safety inspection document – should be a recommendation carried out before the next shuttle flight. As it is now, inspectors must justify to managers why certain critical parts should have mandatory checks rather than justify why they should not, he said.

Out of more than 230 interviews with space shuttle employees conducted by the board, Deal said he conducted a third of them and was disheartened to learn Nasa’s shuttle inspectors were forced to buy their own tools and prevented from making spot checks. The inspectors also were not inspecting some critical shuttle parts, were using hopelessly outdated equipment and being trained by the contractors they were supposed to monitor.

“I heard this first hand from all these different levels, from the technician up through management and we cannot ignore that,” he said. “When they say this could be the next accident waiting to happen, I just have the conviction that this has to be a recommendation and brought a little bit more out in the light instead of buried somewhere else” in the formal report.

Yesterday, Nasa’s boss promised to change the tainted space agency culture that led to the Columbia accident, assuring investigators and the rest of the world: “We get it.”

Administrator Sean O’Keefe also accepted responsibility for the flight schedule pressure that the investigation board said may well have prompted space shuttle managers to bypass safety before – and especially during – Columbia’s doomed flight.

O’Keefe said that “without reservation” Nasa would comply with all 29 of the investigation board’s recommendations. Fifteen, all technical in nature, must be implemented before space shuttles fly again. O’Keefe declined to say when that might happen, but did not rule out the space agency’s launch target of next spring.

More in this section


Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox