WASHINGTON – Investigators looking into the space shuttle disaster will have a well-documented record of years past reflecting mounting safety concerns, tight budgets and shortages of key experts in the NASA program.
A retired Navy admiral who investigated the USS Cole bombing will head the independent probe into the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia. Meanwhile, the Senate will hold hearings as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the House Science Committee plan their own investigations of what went wrong.
The independent panel, led by retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., was holding its initial meeting Monday at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.
None of the previous warnings foretold the kind of tragedy that happened Saturday, but they depicted an agency that needed to intensify its focus on space shuttle safety.
As President Bush took office, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found in 2001 that the shuttle work force had declined significantly to the point it reduced NASA'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 GAO said. When it visited the problem again, it reported last week that "staffing shortages in many key areas still remain a problem."
A federally mandated safety panel of outside experts expressed "the strongest safety concern" in 15 years when it reported to Congress last April.
Members of Congress made clear that safety and the NASA budget will come under intense scrutiny, beginning Monday with submission of Bush's budget for the agency next year.
"Inevitably, there will be a discussion out of this about how much NASA should be funded, should there be another orbiter built, and in fact, has it been so poorly funded in recent years that maybe, just maybe it wasn't as safe as it should be?" said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who flew aboard Columbia in 1986 as a House member.
On Monday, Nelson said, "The last two administrations have been starving NASA of money, and because it didn't have enough to do everything it wanted to do along with its cost overruns on the space station, it was delaying the safety upgrades. And there's no excuse for that."
However, Nelson refused to suggest that delays in safety upgrades had anything to do with Saturday's accident.
The House Science Committee will lead the congressional investigations of the tragedy, focusing on how much money has been devoted to the safety of the shuttle and other space programs and whether the disaster could have been prevented with more resources.
While many of the warnings in years past about shuttle safety were blunt, they were often tempered with qualified praise for NASA.
For example, the GAO said that to NASA's credit, the agency discontinued downsizing plans for the shuttle program in December 1999 and initiated efforts to hire new staff. But even with these efforts, the training of new staff and dealing with critical losses due to retirements are "considerable challenges," the auditors said.
In last April's report to Congress, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel noted that "safety has not yet been compromised. NASA and its contractors maintain excellent safety practices and processes as well as a world-class level of safety consciousness."
On the other hand, the safety panel's former chairman, Richard D. Blomberg, told Congress that many engineering improvements have been cut or delayed for budget reasons and "some of these would directly reduce flight risk."
In an interview Sunday, Blomberg said that "what I was talking about was long-term safety. ... I was not predicting this or any other imminent disaster."
Blomberg said that "the space shuttle was destined to be our human flight vehicle until 2020" and "every change takes a long time to plan. We were saying you've got to get your act together and move forward now."
Criticism has also come from some inside the agency.
Last August, a retired NASA engineer, Don A. Nelson, wrote Bush about what he said was 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," said Nelson, who is no relation to the senator. 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."
Bush science adviser John Marburger on Sunday defended the way the administration dealt with Nelson's concerns and said that even in light of Saturday's accident, he would still make the same decisions. Nelson advocated an escape module for the shuttle crews, a proposal that would require extensive redesign, NASA official Bill Readdy wrote in 1999.
"When we looked at the way NASA was responding to those issues we decided it was not justified," said Marburger.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said "clearly in this case, an escape pod would not have saved the lives of the astronauts given that they were 200,000 feet above Earth and flying at 12,000 mph, they would not have been able to survive."