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Shuttle Report Raps NASA, Says Safety Culture ‘Broken’

By John Schwartz and Matthew L. Wald

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

NASA will lose more shuttles and more astronauts unless it transforms its “broken safety culture,” the board investigating the loss of the Columbia said in its final report on Tuesday.

The scathing 248-page report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board said blunders and organizational problems at NASA were just as important as the errant chunk of insulating foam that blew a hole in the spacecraft’s wing, setting in motion a chain of events that ended with the Columbia’s destruction over Texas during its return to earth on Feb. 1. The report describes a space agency that had deluded itself over time into downplaying the risks of space flight, with missed communications, complacency and missteps that added up to disaster.

The report makes clear that engineers within NASA had strong sense that Columbia might have been mortally wounded during liftoff and that they took appropriate steps, making three requests for outside assistance to get photos of the shuttle to assess the damage. A high-risk rescue mission might have been mounted, the board said, if management had recognized the severity of the problem and acted quickly.

But instead, it countermanded the engineers’ moves. The problem that doomed Columbia and its crew -- even after liftoff -- was not a lack of technology or ability, the board concluded, but missed opportunities and a lack of leadership and open-mindedness in management.

The accident “was probably not an anomalous, random event, but rather likely rooted to some degree in NASA’s history and the human space flight program’s culture,” the report said.

On its opening page, the report issued a somber warning: “In this board’s opinion, unless the technical, organizational, and cultural recommendations made in this report are implemented, little will have been accomplished to lessen the chance that another accident will follow.”

In a briefing here on Tuesday, board members said that they were unanimously committed to the future of spaceflight. “None of us has come to the conclusion that it is not worth the risk and not worth the money,” said John Logsdon, a member of the board and director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

But their report was far from enthusiastic about the prospects of resuming the shuttle program, which exists primarily to carry astronauts and equipment to the International Space Station. The board said the three remaining shuttles could fly again, but only after NASA carries out 15 recommendations, some very challenging. And it said the two-decade-old fleet should be replaced as soon as possible.

President Bush and the NASA administrator, Sean O’Keefe, both vowed on Tuesday that the shuttle fleet would fly again. “Our journey into space will go on,” the president said.