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Analyzing NASA

Any astronauts preparing for U.S. space missions will have mixed emotions on reading yesterday's verdict on February's disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia.

On the one hand, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board says "the present shuttle is not inherently unsafe." On the other, "because of the risks inherent" in the shuttle's design almost 30 years ago, it "is in the nation's best interest" to replace this form of shuttle "as soon as possible," preferably by 2010. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration should not launch another shuttle until there have been sweeping changes to ensure safety, the board cautions, because otherwise "the scene is set for another accident."

Most damning, the report blasts NASA's administration for learning little from the explosion of the shuttle Challenger in 1986. It says "flawed practices embedded in NASA's organization system continued for 20 years and made substantial contributions to both accidents."

Last February, as in 1986, all seven people aboard the shuttle died. This time, a piece of insulating foam broke off from an external fuel tank 82 seconds after takeoff and pierced the protective coating on the shuttle's left wing. That breach allowed hot gases to penetrate the wing days later when the shuttle re-entered Earth's atmosphere. The shuttle broke apart.

Foam had broken away on previous flights. Because those flights hadn't ended in disaster, NASA officials figured there was no problem. Senior managers pooh-poohed the concerns of their engineers. When, shortly after February's takeoff, technicians asked to have a spy satellite examine the left wing because a video of the launch showed the foam had struck it, their "three clear requests for better imagery" were ignored.

If senior administrators had not waved away the worries, there might have been time to send the shuttle Atlantis on a mission to rescue the Columbia crew. Instead, the astronauts became the victims in part of a culture that "stifled professional differences of opinion" and relied "on past success as a substitute for sound engineering practices."

The board's report, which acknowledges the problems of underfunding and staff reductions, has many recommendations to reshape that culture and to impose independent oversight on safety standards. The question is whether those in charge of NASA have the capacity, this time round, to learn from past mistakes.

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