Independent Safety Center Created in Response to Columbia Tragedy

Spurred by the Columbia space shuttle tragedy (search), NASA will create an independent safety center to examine all space agency programs and projects, officials said Tuesday.

The Engineering and Safety Center will be a way for NASA (search) staff to report safety issues to management. It will be based at NASA's Langley Research Center but will involve about 250 people throughout the agency.

NASA has learned during the Columbia investigation that there is a need to independently verify its engineering and safety standards, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said during a news conference after he briefed Langley employees.

"This is an important element of what we have heard from the deliberations of the Columbia accident investigation board," O'Keefe said.

The shuttle broke up Feb. 1 as it re-entered the atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

Roy Bridges, Langley's director, called the safety center a high priority and said he expects to have it established within a couple of months.

The center's assessments will be sent to the agency's safety chief, who decides whether a shuttle mission is ready for launch.

A NASA engineer at Langley was among those involved in a flurry of e-mail discussions in the days before Columbia's breakup. The engineer raised the possibility of damage to the spaceship's thermal protection system from a flying piece of foam during launch.

His concerns were forwarded to Del Freeman, Langley's acting director, whose staff was assured by Johnson Space Center (search) in Houston that the shuttle was fine. The new office will provide a central clearinghouse for any such concerns during future missions.

The safety center will be headed by Ralph Roe, who was NASA's chief engineer as manager of the Space Shuttle Vehicle Engineering Office.

Roe's move to Langley is part of a series of shake-ups in the space shuttle program in the months since the Columbia accident, which grounded the fleet.

NASA officials have said they plan to have shuttles flying again in about six months, pending a final report from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.