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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Report Slams NASA For Shuttle Disaster

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's overconfident management and loss of focus on safety "were as much a cause" of the Columbia accident as the chunk of foam that dealt a deadly blow to the space shuttle's left wing, investigators concluded.

The scathing 248-page report released Tuesday warned that without drastic changes, another disaster is likely. In the report, which came almost seven months to the day after the spacecraft disintegrated over Texas, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board said the shuttle was not "inherently unsafe," but issued 29 recommendations that it insisted must be implemented for a safe return to flight, six of them focusing on organizational change.

"The board strongly believes that if these persistent, systemic flaws are not resolved, the scene is set for another accident," the investigators wrote. "NASA's blind spot is it believes it has a strong safety culture."

Board member John Barry put it this way: "NASA had conflicting goals of cost, schedule and safety. Unfortunately, safety lost out."

The board concluded that safety engineers used "sleight of hand" tactics even before the Feb. 1 Columbia tragedy to play down the frequency of strikes by fuel-tank foam insulation and managers pressed ahead because of intense pressure from high up to stay on schedule. Even shuttle managers said their rationale for continuing to launch in the face of foam strikes was "lousy."

O'Keefe told space agency employees in a television broadcast that a group already has been established to change the NASA culture, another to monitor the technical aspects of return to flight.

NASA's vigilance after the 1986 Challenger explosion lessened as the years went by, and the recommendations by those investigators were forgotten or overlooked. So the Columbia investigators sought a deeper, broader analysis.

There was total agreement among the board members on the fact that chunk of foam insulation that broke off the external fuel tank just over a minute into Columbia's mid-January launch created the breach in the left wing that led to the ship's destruction on Feb. 1 and the deaths of all seven astronauts.

The cause of the Challenger accident, in which all seven astronauts were killed, also was attributed in part to management failures. The technical cause was different, however. In the case of Challenger, O-ring seals on the booster rockets failed in the bitter cold.

NASA's space shuttle fleet, now reduced to three, has proven difficult and expensive to operate and more dangerous than expected, the report stated. "It is the board's view that, in retrospect, the increased complexity of a shuttle designed to be all things to all people created inherently greater risks than if more realistic technical goals had been set at the start."