Poor Management for Shuttle Charged : Launch Schedule Jeopardized Even Before Challenger Explosion, Reagan Panel Says
The space shuttle program was so plagued by a lack of spare parts and mission software and inadequate crew training that flights would have been substantially slowed or halted by now even if the Challenger disaster had not occurred, members of the presidential commission that investigated the accident said Tuesday.
“There was no management of this program,” a commissioner said. “Even without the accident, the program would have ground to a halt by this point.”
“They never would have made the launches they promised,” another commissioner said. “They didn’t have enough planning to support these launches and they didn’t even have a coherent problem plan to tell them that. They didn’t even have a spares program in place. They were scrounging parts off other shuttles.”
In its report, which is to be officially released next week, the presidential commission will cite such deficiencies and declare that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s frenzy to meet launch schedules jeopardized safety.
The report will recommend a substantial overhaul in management of the shuttle program and state that the Challenger disaster “was a preventable accident and, unless NASA changes its way, they are going to continue to have accidents,” a commissioner said.
“NASA has no idea how to run an airline,” said the commissioner, who, like the other panelists interviewed, agreed to discuss the investigation only on the grounds that he not be identified.
“They were trying to recycle the shuttle, and if you ran an airline like that, your fatalities would be enormous,” this commissioner said. “They’ve got a bunch of tired-out people in there and they need some fresh blood. They’ve got too many 25-year men and this is a different kind of ballgame.”
But another commissioner said that the space agency simply lacked the money and the experience to get its launch requirements in gear. There was little money for a spare parts program, the panelist said, and the agency had so little experience in running the shuttle that it was reluctant to order inventories without knowing what would be needed.
“Every time you cannibalize, every time you take a piece off another vehicle, you have a chance of hurting something, breaking a piece, so the reliability of the piece is not as good,” the commissioner said. “So that is covered in the report. It says that’s a bad practice, and you really need to get spare parts.”
A ground mock-up of the shuttle for crew training had to be reprogrammed for each new mission, a process that gave the astronauts insufficient time for training and forced them to rehearse for flights at such hours as 2 a.m., commissioners said. One panelist said that crews preparing for five or six different missions would have to wait their turns to use the agency’s two simulators, which broke down often and for which spare parts could not always be found.
Computers also had to be reprogrammed for each new mission, and last-minute changes in cargo forced further changes. One commissioner said that the agency needs more time between missions to handle its computer needs and must reduce late changes in cargo requirements.
Commissioners said that the shuttle program “fell apart,” as one put it, because the space agency had promised to run the shuttle at a cost that was unrealistically low.
“They were victims of their own baloney,” a commissioner said. “They oversold it and in trying to make good on their promises, they got themselves into this terrible mess.”
The panel will recommend that suppliers and astronauts participate in launch decisions and that new management procedures be established to improve coordination among the space agency centers in Florida, Alabama, Texas and Washington.
“The centers are little kingdoms unto themselves, and each kingdom has its own king and each kingdom runs its affairs differently,” a commissioner said. “And there are very few ambassadors.”
The commission report also will discuss safety features for the crew compartment. But one panelist said that no escape feature could have saved the Challenger’s seven crew members after the explosion. Instead, the report will focus on other possible accident scenarios. For example, a panelist said NASA should consider a system that would allow the crew to bail out if a landing had to be aborted.
The panel found that the O-rings, the seals on the solid rocket boosters that have been blamed for the Jan. 28 shuttle disaster, were not the only critical safety item that has worried the agency.
Other Safety Concerns
“There are about four or five other . . . safety things that NASA has been playing the same game with as the O-rings--the main engine, the brakes, the flapper valves, the automatic landing system,” one panelist said.
But the commission’s report does not address all the hardware problems the panelists found. “We’d be going for five years,” a commission source said. “So the commission just cautions them about all these problems and says they better not let them sneak up on them the way the (solid rocket) boosters did.”
In other developments, Morton Thiokol Inc., the contractor that built the solid rocket boosters, announced completion of its own management reorganization Tuesday when two of the company vice presidents who had approved the Challenger’s launch were reassigned.
Coupled with changes already made at NASA, the move means that all management executives with a direct hand in overruling engineering objections to the launch have been removed from shuttle organizations.
Joseph C. Kilminster--the executive who signed a document disputing his own engineers’ safety warnings and cleared the way for Challenger’s launch--was replaced by Carver G. Kennedy, vice president of space services at the Kennedy Space Center, Fla. Kennedy takes over as head of the company’s space booster program.
The company also announced that Calvin G. Wiggins, vice president and assistant general manager of the space division, would be reassigned within the company. Kilminster, Wiggins, General Manager Jerald E. Mason and Chief Engineer Robert Lund dismissed the emotional arguments of about a dozen rocket engineers who wanted the shuttle delayed because of fear that cold temperatures might harm the solid rocket booster seals. Mason said Monday that he will retire early and Lund was previously reassigned to another space program.
The company also reinstated Allan J. McDonald, an engineer who objected to the Challenger launch, as a space division director.
Meanwhile, President Reagan announced Tuesday that he has selected William R. Graham, deputy administrator of NASA, as his top science adviser.
Times staff writer William C. Rempel in Los Angeles contributed to this story.