A task force report cites "a remarkable improvement in the NASA emphasis on safety" as the first post-Challenger shuttle flight is readied for launch but says the improvement could prove temporary because the space agency lacks talent.
The report said there are no significant safety issues to stand in the way of Discovery's September liftoff, but there still are "deficiencies in people, skills, management systems and independent safety oversight functions."The report, issued Tuesday, noted that some of the most talented engineers and managers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration were transferred into shuttle safety organizations since the Challenger explosion in 1986 halted all manned American space flights.
Many of the experts will return to their original jobs after Discovery flies, creating "some concern that the depth of experienced, skilled and competent people is too shallow," the report said.
A House subcommittee that oversees space flight requested the report from a committee whose members came from within and outside the space agency. It was made public a day after Discovery was rolled out to launch pad 39B at Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Last August, the same committee was critical of NASA operations, saying that safety concerns had given way to business as usual and "an alarming vacillation in safety emphasis and management."
Since then, said the report: "The committee has discovered a positive change in attitudes . . . the commitment to safety over schedule is freely articulated. The new launch decision management system is thorough and provides for a healthy redundancy of safety reviews and oversight."
The committee recommended formalized training and rotation of people to and from safety organizations and other programs.
It noted that safety issues and identifying hazards and controls on the manned space flight program had been given highest priority in the activities to return to flight.
But, it said, "the question of how to continue the safety effort" after the Discovery flight worried many NASA managers.
"It is certain that the level of effort exhibited in the respite between launches cannot be maintained," the panel said. "An ongoing system must be set up."