WASHINGTON — Nine experts on a NASA space safety advisory panel have resigned in the wake of sharp criticism from the Columbia accident investigation board and by Congress, the space agency said today.
The members of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel and two staff members of the panel sent letters of resignation to NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe.
Glenn Mahone, a NASA spokesman, said that the ASAP chairman, Shirley McCarty, said in a cover letter to O'Keefe that the resignations "will give you and the Congress the freedom to revitalize the panel and reshape its charter and mission."
O'Keefe, in accepting the resignations, said that the Columbia accident investigation showed that "a wide range of oversight functions should be strengthened within the agency.
"We need to take this opportunity to explore how the original concept for an Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel needs to evolve to best meet the future needs of the agency," he said.
The ASAP was established after the 1967 Apollo 1 fire which took the lives of three astronauts. That was the first major accident in the American space program. Members include space engineers, scientists, former aerospace industry executives and military officers.
In the wake of the Columbia accident, which killed seven astronauts on Feb. 1, the safety panel was criticized by members of Congress as being ineffective.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board said in its report that the ASAP lacked influence. Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee said the ASAP failed to spot potential danger signs in the operation of the space shuttle and that NASA should reconstitute the panel.
Arthur Zygielbaum, a University of Nebraska aerospace professor and longtime NASA manager, said the Senate committee statement held the board "culpable for the death of seven people" in the Columbia accident.
"That was a very hard thing to take," he said. "We all feel terrible."
But he said the board, in its annual reports, had pointed out a number of safety issues that later were addressed by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, but that many of those issues were ignored by NASA.
That, he said, demonstrated the lack of influence the ASAP had with NASA and emphasized the need to reconstitute the safety panel.
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