NASA SOLVED MOST OF THE PROBLEMS THAT CAUSED CHALLENGER’S DOWNING
BUT CRITICS QUESTION THE WAY AGENCY EVALUATED RISKS, SET PRIORITIES
The people who found everything wrong with the way the Challenger was sent on its fateful journey are satisfied that almost everything has been done to make the launch of Discovery right. But they have some reservations.
"If they let me go, I'd go," said Norman R. Parmet, a member of one National Research Council panel overseeing the shuttle recovery effort."It's a risky venture, but there are so many eyeballs focused on this one, that it's probably as safe as they can make it," Parmet said of the $1.2 billion redesign and rebuilding effort.
"NASA has done a reasonably good job tracking down their biggest problems but they haven't done it as systematically as our panel suggested," said Parmet, a retired vice president for engineering and quality assurance at Trans World Airlines.
Parmet's panel was especially critical of the way NASA evaluated risks. Instead of using proven statistical methods to assign priorities to critical items, Parmet said, NASA substituted human judgment.
Still, he said, "some of us think NASA has done a thorough job and pretty much got risks under control. What we are telling them is that on future designs, they ought to do the prioritization work at the beginning."
Guyford Stever, the chairman of another National Research Council panel, said the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has addressed the shuttle's problems "not with the best design possible, but with good compromises in terms of time, money, safety and reliability."
His panel on the redesign of the shuttle's booster rocket said in a report this month that "the overall level of safety and reliability has been substantially improved."
Stever, too, said risks remain and "whether the level of risk is acceptable is a matter that NASA must judge." Of NASA's plans for launching Discovery, the panel said: "We have no basis for objection."
Oversight by the research council was one of the recommendations made by the Rogers commission, which acted on President Reagan's orders to "review the circumstances surrounding the accident, determine the probable cause or causes and develop recommendations for corrective action."
"As far as I can tell, those responsible have followed our recommendations very carefully," said William P. Rogers, the former secretary of state who headed the 13-member commission.
The commission minced no words after its four months of hearings and investigations. It found the immediate cause to be a leak in the booster rocket, brought on by a faulty design and extreme cold. It said the decision to launch was flawed and that NASA's safety system was silent.
"An accident rooted in history," the commission report said.
Rogers commission member Robert Hotz, a former editor of Aviation Week and Space Technology, said NASA implemented most of the commission's recommendations in a reasonable way and, "I think they are ready to fly again."
But, he said, "I still see lots of evidence they don't understand the real nature of the business they are in."
NASA still is concentrating on planning for one flight at a time, he said, when it should be operating a space airline.
"They need to get some people into management who understand recycle flying; these guys don't," Hotz said. "Look at the way the first 24 flights were run. It was play-it-by-ear and catch-as-catch-can. There was no system to it. Maintenance was awful, parts (supplies) were awful, the payload system was terrible, the crew could not keep up with flight plan changes.
"They don't have any of the kind of talent you need to run an airline, run a military combat organization, anything where there is repetitive flying. What's more, they have a mindset against it. NASA has an arrogance that is certainly not justified by their performance in the last 10 years. They want to learn everything from square one. They don't believe in learning anything from other organizations."
Hotz said one of the best things the commission did was to open the question of astronaut safety, which he said had been neglected by engineers. As a result of the commission's recommendations new escape systems have been installed on the launch pad and inside the shuttle.
There are critics who say those changes are largely cosmetic since they would be useful only in limited circumstances, but Hotz disagrees.
"If you are not spinning violently or tumbling violently, you can scramble out one way or another," he said.