Blood on their hands

The explosion of Columbia over central Texas was presaged by a drumbeat of warnings by government auditors and experts who voiced concerns about lapses in oversight and deferred safety improvements for NASA's aging fleet of Space Shuttles.

Although "safety first" was the watchword of Shuttle launches, aerospace engineers have repeatedly complained that belt tightening and shifting priorities were denying Columbia and the three other Shuttles the necessary upgrades and improvements.

How much of a forewarning they had may be determined in the next several weeks.

Members of Congress made clear recently that safety and the NASA budget will come under scrutiny on Capitol Hill this year, beginning when the White House sends lawmakers details of Bush's priorities for the agency next year.

The House Science Committee will take the lead in Congress' investigation of the tragedy.

As President Bush took office, the investigative arm of Congress found in 2001 that NASA's Shuttle work force over the years had declined significantly to the point of reducing the agency's ability to safely support the program.

Many key areas were not sufficiently staffed by qualified workers, and the remaining work force showed signs of overwork and fatigue, the General Accounting Office stated.

As recently as April, the former chairman of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel warned Congress that NASA's management of the Shuttle program had drawn "the strongest safety concern the panel has voiced" in 15 years.

"I have never been as worried for Space-Shuttle safety as I am right now," the chairman, Richard Blomberg, said.

In August, retired NASA engineer Don Nelson wrote Bush about inadequate safety of the Shuttle, but was rebuffed by the White House's science adviser.

"Your intervention is required to prevent another catastrophic Space-Shuttle accident," Nelson said. He suggested that Shuttle crews be limited to four people, saying that, "If this ... is ignored we can watch in horror and shame as the astronauts face certain death."

None of this was supposed to happen. The last lethal Shuttle disaster, 17 years ago, provoked calls for revolutionary changes in the program's management. The agency promised that safety would henceforth be put far ahead of all other considerations, including budget constraints, the demands of its users, and any political pressures.

"We will never launch when it is unsafe," Fred Gregory, then NASA's director of space flight, promised the House science subcommittee nine months ago.

But safety experts have long said NASA's claim that safety was improving stemmed from an illusion. The Shuttle, they said, was an aging, balky and delicate space truck that exceeded NASA's own risk limits for manned flight.

No new Shuttle has been in development, and in fact, many of the most recent safety alarms stemmed from NASA's recent plan to try to extend the life of the current Shuttles by another 25 years.

Some of the safety alarms stemmed from what experts have described as inadequate NASA oversight of those parts of the program that have been privatized. Recently, for example, the Government Accounting Office described NASA's management of all its major contractors as "weak" and "debilitating," and accused the space agency of placing "little emphasis on end results (or) product performance."

The increased fiscal pressure on NASA is partly the result of deep budget cuts over the past decade. NASA and other civilian agencies involved in the space program saw their funding slashed by $1 billion in fiscal 2002, while Department of Defense spending on space programs rose by $600 million, according to a recent study by the Aerospace Industries Association, an industry trade group.

"The civil space program that NASA runs has been neglected for a generation and as a consequence we find ourselves flying increasingly aged technology," said Loren Thompson, a defense-industry analyst for think tank Lexington Institute.

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