ORLANDO, Fla. - NASA remains hobbled by the flawed leadership style and engineering practices that led to the Columbia disaster, according to members of an independent group that monitored the agency's safety efforts after the shuttle disintegrated during re-entry in 2003.
Overall, the watchdog panel's final report yesterday found that NASA had made significant strides to correct the conditions that led to the deaths of the seven astronauts aboard Columbia.
But seven of the group's 26 members delivered a separate assessment describing lingering problems in every aspect of NASA's efforts to return the space shuttle to flight.
The agency continues to put schedule ahead of safety, follows lax engineering practices and is unwilling to learn from its mistakes, they wrote.
Among the seven panel members were a former astronaut and others from fields including nuclear safety and public policy. They devoted more than 19 of the report's 216 pages to a critique that found a lack of "focused, consistent leadership and management" at NASA.
One finding - that NASA never developed a clear understanding of why the shuttles' external fuel tanks keep shedding foam during launch - was underscored when Discovery lifted off July 26 for the first shuttle mission since Columbia.
Late in Discovery's climb to orbit, a chunk of foam weighing nearly a pound flew off the tank, missing the orbiter. The accident stunned NASA managers, who suspended further flights until they could determine why it happened. Columbia was doomed when a large piece of foam punched a hole in its left wing during launch.
The seven members did not address Discovery's problems, but they faulted NASA for failing to adequately understand the dangers of their spaceships and for taking a piecemeal approach to solving problems.
"Throughout the return-to-flight effort, there has been a reluctance to appropriately characterize the risks inherent in the Space Shuttle program," they wrote.
Panel created in 2003
Their observations appear in the final report of the Return to Flight Task Group, which was created in 2003 by Sean O'Keefe, then the NASA administrator, to look over the agency's shoulder after the Columbia disaster.
O'Keefe, who left NASA in February to become chancellor at Louisiana State University, said the task group fulfilled its mission.
"You've got to be pretty thick-skinned with this stuff," O'Keefe said yesterday. "You don't learn anything by everybody saying you did a great job. If continuous improvement is part of the objective, you won't get there if you just sit back and rest on your achievements."
A NASA spokesman said Michael D. Griffin, O'Keefe's successor as administrator, was not available to discuss the report yesterday but that the agency was taking all of the task group's findings into consideration.
The group's purpose was to determine whether NASA complied with the safety recommendations made by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. To that end, its report concluded that NASA implemented 12 of 15 recommendations before Discovery was launched.
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.