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NASA Seen as Improving but With a Ways to Go

The Orlando Sentinel

NASA remains plagued by the flawed leadership style and engineering practices that led to the 2003 Columbia disaster, say some members of an independent group that monitored the agency’s safety efforts after the tragedy.

Overall, the watchdog panel’s final report Wednesday found that NASA had made significant strides to correct the conditions that led to the deaths of seven astronauts aboard Columbia. But seven of the group’s 26 members delivered a separate assessment, describing lingering problems in every aspect of NASA’s efforts to return the space shuttle to flight.

The agency continues to put schedule ahead of safety, follows lax engineering practices and exhibits an unwillingness to learn from its mistakes, the seven wrote.

The members included a former astronaut and other experts in fields including nuclear safety and public policy. They devoted about 20 of the report’s 216 pages to the critique that blamed a lack of “focused, consistent leadership and management” within NASA.

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Their observations appear in the final report from the “Return to Flight Task Group” that was set up in 2003 by former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe to look over the agency’s shoulder after Columbia. O’Keefe, who left NASA in February to become chancellor at Louisiana State University, said the task group fulfilled its mission.

“You’ve got to be pretty thick skinned with this stuff,” O’Keefe said Wednesday.

“You don’t learn anything by everybody saying you did a great job. If continuous improvement is part of the objective, you won’t get there if you just sit back and rest on your achievements.”

Panel co-chairmen Tom Stafford and Richard Covey said that they thought the shuttle was safer than it was in 2003. They said NASA’s efforts to re-shape the agency after Columbia were commendable, if imperfect.

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A NASA spokesman said current Administrator Michael D. Griffin was not available to discuss the report Wednesday.


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