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Ex-NASA engineer: Shuttle report finds safety program lacking

Former NASA engineer Randy Avera
Former NASA engineer Randy Avera

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NASA's chief admits his agency 'just flat missed' the importance of the foam strike during the shuttle Columbia's takeoff. CNN's Miles O'Brien reports. (August 26)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The committee investigating the space shuttle Columbia disaster was highly critical of NASA's management structure and the agency's safety program in its final report.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board released the report Tuesday. All seven astronauts aboard Columbia were killed when the shuttle broke up over Texas on February 1.

Former NASA engineer Randy Avera read the report before its official release and discussed its findings Tuesday with CNN's Miles O'Brien.

O'BRIEN: We're told it is scathing in its indictment of NASA's culture. That's the headline. First of all, would you agree with that characterization?

AVERA: I think that the report surely had issues that were addressed. It has stern recommendations, but I think they're appropriate recommendations based on the current events that have happened with Columbia and the time that has passed since 1986 and the recommendations of the Rogers Commission report [on the 1986 Challenger accident]. So until summary, there are basically five points I'd like to share.

First of all, the board recommends a national commitment to human flight that is critical to the NASA future.

Secondly, safety will be the core of the program and that the safety program, a new safety program, will have accountability. Now, the obvious question is -- who would be accountable? The board recommends that the United States Congress and the president of the United States will be accountable for that safety program.

And fourth, the use of expendable launch vehicles to supply the international space station to supplement the shuttle flights and that the national direction will be to develop an orbital space plane to replace the space shuttle that we have today. And that the core of the development of that space plane will be safety for the flight crew as opposed to performance of the vehicle.

And the fifth main item, overhaul of the NASA safety system, the management of that safety program, and the resources, including funding, to ensure the higher level of safety for this program.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk about that last point for a minute because those first issues are issues which are fairly clear-cut. Overhauling safety -- that's a difficult thing to get your hands around. Did it offer specific recommendations on what NASA isn't doing now that it should be doing?

AVERA: Well, the investigation revealed that basically there was no safety program within NASA, and the reason that they say that is because it was so fragmented and that the ...

O'BRIEN: Say that again -- no safety program?

AVERA: No safety program as a unique across-the-board program. What the board found was that will lower level management had been delegated to come up with their own recipe of what safety process to use and how they would document it and implement a safety program.

So for the past many years, NASA has been operating under what would be a multiple safety program with very little continuity, which led to the upper management not realizing -- all the way to the administrator not realizing -- the problems at hand that were critical for safety of flight.

O'BRIEN: You are somebody who's [been] involved in the investigation of the Challenger accident. To read this and hear those kinds of statements, it must be kind of haunting.

AVERA: It is haunting. It's as if we've gone back to 1986 and are discussing the same issues. The point being that humans are not as reliable as we would like to be, and we need a system in place that's reliable and that that system would check itself to be more reliable than we are as human beings.

And the board was very specific about leadership from the top -- that the tone and the culture of NASA totally depends upon that leadership. And that employees would be not only willing to come forward with safety problems but would be supported as heroes of the program by bringing this information forward and solutions for these technical problems.

O'BRIEN: In these 250 pages, it offers really a blueprint for wholesale fundamental change for NASA. Do you think it's warranted?

AVERA: I think it's warranted... We have to remember there's public safety involved as well as the NASA mission. And the charter of NASA certainly is in the doorway of being overhauled, starting with its safety program and certainly the culture of the NASA program. Management and how the engineers interface to that management group will certainly be overhauled.

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