Baltimore Sun

NASA set to change shuttle operations

WASHINGTON - NASA is planning sweeping changes to the space shuttle's operation and management before returning to flight, according to an internal agency plan for safely resuming launches.

The changes are detailed in a 121-page report titled "NASA's Implementation Plan for Return to Flight and Beyond." An Aug. 5 draft was obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.

"The goal is not only to fix the specific cause of the Columbia accident," the report says, "but also to put in place the comprehensive engineering, operational and managerial improvements that will provide the safety assurance required to return to flight and avoid the risk of overconfidence."

Part of the report outlines how NASA plans to respond to five preliminary recommendations made by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board during its nearly seven-month investigation. The rest lists 18 other areas identified by NASA that must be fixed before returning to flight as well as three longer-term actions.

Many of the actions anticipate recommendations likely to be included in the investigation board's final report, which is scheduled for release today.

Specific actions in the NASA plan include:

  • Changes in the Mission Management Team that oversees shuttle flights.

  • An overhaul of NASA's safety organization.

  • A long-term redesign of the orbiter's thermal protection system to make it more impact-resistant.

  • An extensive redesign of several areas on the shuttle's external fuel tank.

  • Use of the international space station as a "safe haven" where shuttle astronauts with a damaged ship could live for up to six months while waiting for a rescue flight.

    The plan remains a work in progress. According to internal briefing papers from Thursday that the Sentinel obtained, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has established a Return To Flight Action Center that will begin a review of the board's final report today. Managers will compare it with the agency's implementation plan and make revisions as necessary.

    A final version is scheduled to be reviewed by senior NASA managers Sept. 2 and presented to members of Congress on Sept. 5. Public release and distribution to a task force overseeing NASA's implementation of the board's report is scheduled for Sept. 9.

    NASA hopes to resume flying its three shuttles in the spring. But space agency officials have acknowledged that it could take longer, depending on engineering issues and what the investigation board's report requires.

    Altering culture

    Several of the plan's actions would alter management policies and safety procedures to change the NASA culture that existed before the Columbia accident.

    The shuttle broke apart over Texas while returning home Feb. 1, killing seven astronauts. Investigators have determined that a chunk of foam insulation weighing 1.67 pounds broke free from Columbia's external fuel tank during launch and struck the leading edge of the shuttle's left wing. The blow is thought to have knocked a hole from 6 inches to 10 inches in diameter in a thermal panel on the leading edge, allowing 3,000 degree gases to destroy the wing and trigger Columbia's breakup as it re-entered the atmosphere.

    The investigation board has determined that management and organizational problems were as much a factor in the disaster as technical issues. Managers became comfortable with foam strikes on previous missions despite a requirement that debris not strike the shuttle. And concerns of lower-level engineers about the strike on Columbia never reached upper management.

    "NASA is reassessing its entire safety program," the report says. "Taken together, these concrete organizational steps will provide the foundation for a revitalized safety culture within NASA."

    The plan includes new guidelines for NASA's Mission Management Team. Despite a requirement that the team meet daily, managers convened only five times during Columbia's 16-day flight. The issue of whether the shuttle was seriously damaged by the foam strike received scant attention after an analysis suggested that no safety issue existed.

    "A primary goal of improving the MMT [Mission Management Team] processes is to ensure that all engineering and operational concerns are heard and dispositioned at the appropriate level of management, including those brought forth anonymously," the report says.

    Several changes are proposed for the team: mandatory daily meetings; more specific responsibilities for members; formal processes for reviewing analyses and issues during missions; annual training simulations for members to learn to better deal with problems.

    NASA also is reassessing a range of safety policies and requirements. The reviews will examine: how problems in flight are tracked and resolved; waivers that make exceptions to shuttle program requirements; analyses of critical components and their potential to fail; and the process used to certify that shuttles are ready for launch. Some of the reviews, such as the critical components analysis, might not be completed until the end of 2005.

    In addition, NASA's Safety and Mission Assurance Program is getting a top-down review. An independent safety-review organization - an expected recommendation by the investigation board - is being set up at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia.

    Quality control

    NASA also will commission a study to determine the effectiveness of quality control inspections during ground processing at Kennedy Space Center.

    Immediately after the Challenger accident in 1986, the shuttle passed through 44,000 Government Mandatory Inspection Points while being prepared for flight at Kennedy Space Center. By 1995, that number had been cut to 22,000 and was slashed again in 1998 to 8,500.

    Similar reductions occurred at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the shuttle's external fuel tanks are manufactured. After Challenger, 5,000 government inspection points were required. After a review that ended in 2000, the number was cut to 228; it was raised to 586 last year.

    Other parts of the new plan detail technical changes designed to prevent shuttle missions from suffering the same fate as Columbia's.

    A broad redesign of the external tank will eliminate a foam ramp where insulation broke free during Columbia's flight and several others. Additional modifications will deal with potential debris from ice buildup on a line that carries superchilled liquid oxygen propellant.

    Two other tank areas susceptible to foam loss are being examined for redesign. And tests are being added to make sure foam is properly sprayed on the tank. All the changes are expected by the end of the year.

    The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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