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Shuttle warnings ignored?

HOUSTON — Over and over, a projector at one end of a long pale-blue conference room in Building 13 of the Johnson Space Center showed a piece of whitish foam breaking away from the space shuttle Columbia's fuel tank and bursting like fireworks as it struck the left wing.

Engineers at the other end of the cluttered room drifted away from their meeting and watched the images with deep puzzlement: Because of the camera angle, no one could tell exactly where the foam had hit.

It was Jan. 21, five days after the foam had broken loose during liftoff, and some 30 engineers from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and its aerospace contractors were having the first formal meeting to assess potential damage.

Virtually every participant — those in the room and some linked by teleconference — agreed that the space agency should immediately get images of the impact zone, perhaps by requesting them from American spy satellites or powerful telescopes on the ground. They elected one of their own, a soft-spoken NASA engineer Rodney Rocha, to convey the idea to mission managers.

Rocha said he tried at least half a dozen times to get the space agency to make the requests. There were two similar attempts by other engineers. All were turned aside. Rocha said a manager told him that he refused to be a "Chicken Little."

The Columbia's flight director for landing, LeRoy Cain, after consulting with NASA management officials, wrote a curt e-mail message that concluded, "I consider it to be a dead issue."

New interviews and newly revealed e-mail sent during the fatal mission show that the engineers' desire for outside help in getting a look at the shuttle's wing was more intense and widespread than the Aug. 26 final report of the board investigating the accident described.

The new information makes it clear that the failure to follow up on the request for outside imagery — the first step in discovering the damage and perhaps mounting a last-ditch rescue effort — did not simply fall through bureaucratic cracks, but was actively, even hotly resisted by mission managers.

The report did not seek to lay blame on individual managers, and focused instead on physical causes of the accident and the "broken safety culture" that allowed risks to be underplayed. But Congress has opened several lines of inquiry into the mission, and holding individuals accountable is part of the agenda.

In interviews with numerous engineers, most of whom have not spoken publicly until now, the lines of discord between NASA's engineers and managers stand out in stark relief.