WASHINGTON - NASA's chief promised yesterday to lead a complete personality overhaul of the space agency, where investigators found communication problems and unyielding bureaucracy played heavily into the shuttle Columbia accident.
Sounding humble and resolute, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said the agency accepts every one of the findings issued Tuesday in a hefty report on the causes of the tragedy from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.
"We get it; it's about the culture of this agency," O'Keefe said repeatedly during his first news conference since the report.
The board found NASA's mindset or culture just as responsible for the shuttle's destruction as the chunk of insulating foam that fell off the external fuel tank during launch and damaged the left wing.
Columbia broke apart over Texas on Feb. 1 after super-hot gases seeped into the wing through a breach as it headed for a landing at Kennedy Space Center. Seven astronauts died, and O'Keefe said NASA owes it to their families to fix the problems identified in the report and start flying shuttles again.
"We must return to the exploration that their loved ones dedicated their lives to," he said.
The same sentiments were being reinforced elsewhere in NASA yesterday, when the new director of Kennedy Space Center vowed his support for fundamental changes as the agency works toward launching again.
Overall, the accident investigation board found that NASA's current attitudes eroded safety practices. The agency knew that foam came off the tanks on almost every launch but failed to recognize it as a threat.
"The return to flight will not be business as usual - it cannot be, it will not be at this center," said KSC Director Jim Kennedy. "We understand things have to change and while it is inherently against human nature to make change, we understand that for the safety of flight and for the future astronauts who fly on the shuttle, we must to do business differently."
For now, O'Keefe said the agency needs time to digest the report and work out a formal plan within 10 days to two weeks for getting back on track.
He said it's too early to set a date for the next shuttle launch, although NASA has an unofficial timetable of no earlier than mid-March.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration chief said the board's report will serve as a blueprint for re-creating the agency. But he admitted that other NASA officials have made similar promises in the past.
The report noted that while the 1986 Challenger accident spurred many changes initially, the same problems were allowed to creep back over time.
To prevent that from happening again, O'Keefe vowed to lead a Marines-style attack on the existing psyche within the agency, saying "repeated, rhythmic insult" is needed.
"If you mean it, and say the same thing over and over, then sooner or later" it will shape the agency's culture, he said.
The NASA chief also accepted personal responsibility for contributing to the accident, saying that pressure to complete the international space station might have undermined safety.
Senior NASA officials set a Feb. 19, 2004, date for completing the preliminary phase of the space station, which was over budget and behind schedule.
But maintaining that schedule - launching 10 flights in 16 months - put the program under intense pressure. And it might have colored the way mission managers assessed the potential risk from the foam that hit Columbia's wing.
O'Keefe said the agency will look to other organizations that successfully manage high-risk operations and call on outside experts to help mold a culture where people can speak freely about potential dangers. The investigators found NASA workers often are intimidated and layers of regulations impede effective communication.
The board's report put the burden for instituting change on NASA's top leaders, and experts in the field agreed yesterday that those at the highest levels must set the tone.
But some worry that NASA does not understand the depth of the problems revealed by the panel, which was chaired by Harold Gehman Jr.
"I don't feel that they get it," said Diane Vaughan, a professor at Boston College who has studied the organizational issues behind both shuttle accidents and wrote a chapter of the Gehman report. "O'Keefe did talk about his personal accountability and I think that's very important, but I haven't seen any indication that they understand the systemic nature of the problem that goes beyond individual accountability."
Congress plans its first round of hearings on the report next week. O'Keefe said NASA is already bracing for a frank national policy discussion on the merits of human spaceflight, which the board said it hoped to spur with its 248-page treatise on the shuttle tragedy.
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.