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NASA still wrestling with issues of safety, dissent

HOUSTON—Space shuttle program managers on Tuesday and Wednesday will try to answer a basic question: What's the precise risk of launch debris poking yet another fatal hole in a shuttle, as it did to Columbia in 2003?

The way NASA resolves that issue will help answer another basic question: Has the space agency fixed its basic safety and management culture, whose blind intolerance of dissent investigators blamed for the Columbia disaster?

NASA's pre-Columbia safety culture, investigators concluded, was "reactive, complacent and dominated by unjustified optimism" and didn't account for lower-level engineers' worries.

For the past month, NASA engineers have sparred over risk and debris. This week, as they prepared for closed-door meetings at the Johnson Space Center, NASA managers say that they are handling dissent and risk differently.

The real test will come with the scheduled May 22 launch of the shuttle Discovery after 27 months of downtime.

"This is in many ways a competency test for us as an agency," said Mission Management Team Chairman Wayne Hale, the chief guru of cultural change in the shuttle program.

"If we can return the space shuttle to flight and complete the international space station, then we will have demonstrated that we have not just the technical ability, but the right approach to taking risks and the right approach to managing."

One outsider hired to talk to NASA officials in November 2003 on the need for change found a deeply divided, underfunded and dysfunctional space shuttle program.

"Those hours were some of the worst and toughest in my life because they were so hostile because they just did not want to hear what I had to say. They didn't want to be there," said retired Yale University sociology professor Charles Perrow, author of "Normal Accidents: Living With High-Risk Technologies."

"They broke into arguments amongst themselves almost immediately, with some people saying, `We're not getting the resources we want' and others saying, `We got everything we wanted.' I just watched in amazement as they were arguing with themselves."

Perrow said Hale, who brought him to Houston, also ordered underlings to come to the session, which went so badly that after 90 minutes, engineers started ignoring him and working on their handheld e-mail devices.

"I saw the culture playing out in the arguments they had," Perrow said. "The previous culture, back in the glory days, was terrific. And that culture was destroyed."

Culture change is an evolving process that improves with time, NASA chief spokesman Dean Acosta said last week. Shuttle managers have gone through more training and simulations since.

Discovery Commander Eileen Collins agreed, saying that improving culture "is a work in progress. If you ever declare victory, you're wrong."

But Jim Wetherbee, an astronaut who was Collins' first commander at NASA and rose to senior management until he resigned earlier this year, said the space agency's management hasn't changed enough. He said a lack of money and a hurry-up schedule have become serious safety problems.

"The senior leaders of NASA never wanted to change anything this time," Wetherbee said. "We're now hearing the bosses implore us to get on with it and accept the risk."

Another former astronaut, George "Pinky" Nelson, agreed: "It's almost as if they feel they can get away with it one more time. ... There is the pressure to fly, and we have this pressure to somehow, for some reason I can't understand, finish building the space station."

Hale said that's not the case.

"Having to read my name in the Columbia accident investigation report and look in the mirror knowing that there were things that I could have done differently, there is no way I'm going to sign off on a launch no matter what the pressure is if I don't personally believe that it's acceptable and safe," Hale said in an April interview.

John Logsdon, a member of the accident investigation board, said he sees signs of healthy dissent and debate in NASA.

"To me this is an indication of positive culture change," Logsdon, the director of the Space Institute at George Washington University in Washington, wrote in an e-mail response to questions.

Management issues and debris risks were intertwined in engineering documents that were leaked to The New York Times last week. The documents indicated that NASA was changing its mathematical calculations to make it easier to launch the shuttle and accept higher risks.

In a hastily called teleconference, NASA managers said changes weren't finalized and that a healthy debate still continues on that issue.

"This is the sausage making," said John Muratore, a shuttle systems engineering and integration manager. "What we're really in is the debris risk assessment process."

That healthy debate is supposed to resolve Tuesday and Wednesday, when engineers, shuttle managers and safety officials meet for what's called a debris verification review. The idea is to quantify the extent to which fixes to the shuttle's external tank reduce the risk of debris peeling off and hitting the shuttle during launch. Then the experts have to agree that the changes offer a reasonable assurance of safety.

These meetings will involve the dissension and arguments that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board said were lacking when Columbia shed foam shortly after its launch, said Ralph Roe, the director of the NASA Engineering and Safety Center. As vehicle engineering chief during Columbia's launch, Roe was criticized for not acting on underlings' concerns.

Roe said his team of non-shuttle program officials and Muratore's shuttle team had disagreed in past meetings about how to characterize the data and the risk. That's "a very good sign of how you go about this and debate it," he said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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