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Published: Sunday, 7/20/2003

NASA's troubling complacency

It was bad enough that various documents blame the Columbia shuttle disaster on insolent senior managers at NASA. Now, an independent investigator's report reveals that the space program is riddled with what's become a culture of complacency.”

This is beyond worrisome. It is hard to imagine any reason to keep inspectors from examining shuttles. Isn't that their job?

Clearly there is a lot wrong with an agency that is not only one of the country's most prestigious but one of its most costly. In this time of record deficits, NASA's budget is $15.4 billion, a $500 million increase from last year.

Space exploration is far too risky an undertaking to permit complacency about safety. Tragically, the misguided corporate culture of NASA now seems to have contributed to the shuttle disaster in which seven astronauts died Feb. 1.

According to the author of the report, the NASA inspection program took a long time to erode. Air Force Brig. Gen. Duane Deal said that managers gradually became “out of touch with the realities of manned space flight.”

He suggests NASA ought to go back to treating shuttle flights as novel, unproven, and full of risks and dangers. He's right about that. After all, the explosion of the Challenger in 1986 wasn't that long ago.

And as Adm. Harold W. Gehman, Jr., chairman of the investigatory board, sternly noted, the shuttle is not like an airplane that, once landed, “you can turn it around and get it back into the air again quickly.”

NASA executives should be prepared for far-reaching criticism when the report is made public late next month. The investigators found extensive frustration among NASA employees about quality assurance programs. It's no wonder; standards got so lax that the required inspection points on the shuttle fell from more than 40,000 to 8,500.

NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe says the administration will take the report's recommendations seriously. He doesn't have much choice. Americans won't look kindly on NASA's carelessness. Public criticism is bound to continue, especially following disclosures that the Columbia astronauts lived long enough to comprehend their fate.

Space exploration is too vital to our nation - and the human race - to allow it to be jeopardized by arrogant managers prone to poor judgments. They need to bear in mind that the national space exploration program is still just that: exploration. There is no room to take the public's confidence, or that of their colleagues, for granted. NASA has much work to do to regain that confidence.



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