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Bad foam, even worse form

National | NASA: Report on the Columbia crash pegs the space agency's management culture just as dangerous as its foam insulation; commander's widow says reform and return to space is what he "would have wanted"

Issue: "As the West burns," Sept. 6, 2003

For the families of the seven astronauts killed aboard the space shuttle Columbia, Aug. 26 may have brought a measure of closure. In a scathing, 248-page report, an independent investigative panel revealed a 20-year history of mismanagement and miscalculations at NASA that led to the fiery crash on Feb. 1. "NASA's organizational culture had as much to do with this accident as foam did," the investigators concluded, warning that "the scene is set for another accident" if the space agency fails to make fundamental changes.

The insulating foam that broke off upon takeoff was no freak accident, investigators concluded. Similar breaks had occurred on previous missions, but no one at NASA bothered to evaluate the safety threat posed by loose foam. Understaffed and strapped for cash, NASA officials simply decided the breaks were one of the abnormalities they could live with.

"Little by little, NASA was accepting more and more risk in order to stay on schedule," the report concluded. "The [shuttle] program was operating too close to too many margins." Or, as panel member John Barry put it: "NASA had conflicting goals of cost, schedule, and safety. Unfortunately, safety lost out."

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Still, the 13-member panel was unanimous in its recommendation that the shuttles should fly again as soon as they can safely do so, and NASA believes that could happen in March or April of next year.

"That is what my husband Rick would have wanted," said Evelyn Husband, the widow of Columbia's captain. "He understood the risk he took each time he flew, but he also believed in the importance of space exploration and the pursuit of knowledge that might improve quality of life for all of us on Earth."

Mrs. Husband praised NASA for its thorough probe and said she prays for a quick return to space. "Rick reminded us daily to trust in the Lord-that God is in control and promised to never leave us. We cling to that promise in our darkest hours and look forward to the day when we will see Rick again."

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