NASA slow to change, panel says

Safety committee urges that technical authority be in place by next launch

April 09, 2004|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,ORLANDO SENTINEL

WASHINGTON - Members of NASA's main safety advisory group said yesterday that they are confident the agency is making strides to return the shuttle fleet safely to flight but would like to see more progress in the drive to change the organization.

During their second public meeting since being revamped last year, members of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel said they hope NASA will be further along in developing an independent technical authority by the time the panel meets again in three months. Developing such an authority was one of the key recommendations of the board that investigated last year's loss of the space shuttle Columbia.

NASA officials have pledged to have the technical authority in place for the next launch, now scheduled no earlier than next March. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board said the authority should be funded separately from the shuttle program and serve as the gatekeeper for engineering and technical standards and any waivers to those rules.

But Joe Dyer, a retired Navy vice admiral who serves as the safety panel's chairman, said it was clear during briefings the group received this week that the authority is still a work in progress.

"I wouldn't read our comments, perhaps, so much as criticism as a desire, and a looking forward," he said. "We would have been celebratory with more progress. We're less than celebratory."

The panel, chartered by Congress in the wake of the 1961 Apollo 1 launch pad fire that killed three astronauts, was retooled last year after all its members resigned in response to criticism during and after the Columbia investigation.

When the panel meets again, Dyer said, members will be looking for a much more detailed picture of what NASA has done and how it plans to turn the accident board's recommendation into reality.

"It will be, I think, a good day in NASA's evolution when it is clear," Dyer said. "That's not to say that it is terribly in arrears."

Panel member Steven Wallace, who also served on the Columbia board, said one of the reasons the development is taking so long is that opinions differ within the agency about how to make the authority work. The goal is to have the best technical minds working for the authority, he said - but most of those people already have jobs at high levels inside the shuttle program.

"It presents, really, a very legitimate dilemma," Wallace said.

Board members said they plan to keep tabs on NASA's effort to change its institutional culture, which the Columbia board called broken. The panel was briefed privately about the results of an employee survey done by a consultant NASA hired; it will be released to the public next week.

Rosemary O'Leary, a panel member who is a professor at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and an expert in organizational culture, emphasized what others have said before: This kind of institutional change is difficult and often takes a long time. But she added that members of the safety panel wouldn't hesitate to speak up if the process drags on.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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