The board investigating the Columbia space shuttle disaster struck the right note throughout its five-month task, accepting the risk of manned space flight while insisting on safety and accountability. As the board's work draws to a close _ its final report is expected this month _ the early recommendations made so far offer a map for strengthening America's space program.
It would have been easy in the aftermath of the nation's second shuttle disaster to focus attention on placing fault. While holding individuals responsible is important, the more useful approach taken here of examining NASA's procedures and culture should help correct some weaknesses in the entire space program. Harold W. Gehman, Jr., the retired admiral who led the probe, was right to look beyond the cause of the breakup Feb. 1, as the shuttle returned to Earth. Columbia broke apart after superheated gases breached the left wing, apparently after falling insulation foam cracked the shell on Columbia's takeoff. The poor communications and command structure that came to light after Columbia needed to be addressed in addition to the structural breakdown.
The board has already released several preliminary recommendations, urging NASA to do a better job inspecting the shuttle for wear after every flight, to routinely acquire in-orbit images to reveal exterior damage and to obtain better cameras and photograph angles so that engineers on the ground have a better view of the impact of liftoff. NASA has tried to get ahead of the criticisms, and it's likely the agency will announce a new set of protocols before the board issues its final report. Investigators also want NASA to develop a way for astronauts to inspect the shuttle and make in-flight emergency repairs. The agency has already begun the task.
These all are good bread-and-butter recommendations, and NASA's commitment to do what it takes should help rebuild confidence in the space program. But it will take a sustained effort by the agency to institute the procedures and management reforms. Changing NASA's insular culture may ultimately be harder than redesigning any hardware or mechanical system. That's why Gehman's approach was so invaluable _ making NASA more sensitive to safety concerns involves not only bringing forward new people, training and vehicle parts, but a different mind-set among the management there.