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Safety Concerns Won't Ground Next Space Mission


In just nine days, NASA plans to launch the Space Shuttle Discovery on a mission to the international space station. That's happening despite reservations raised by two senior officials. They spoke with reporters yesterday to explain their concerns and how NASA handled them.

NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.


Before NASA decides to go ahead with a launch, it holds a big meeting called the flight readiness review. Hundreds of people attend. This happened last weekend. And at the end, as always, an official poll was taken: go or no go. About 20 senior officials vote. And this time, two said no go. One was NASA's chief engineer, Chris Scolese, the other, NASA's head safety officer, Bryan O'Connor. Both were worried about a repeat of the Columbia shuttle accident, where a piece of insulating foam fell off the fuel tank during launch and punched a hole in the shuttle's wing. Columbia burned up on re-entry.

NASA has done a lot to try to stop foam coming off the fuel tank, but there are some parts they haven't been able to fix. Chief among them, 37 pieces of foam called ice frost ramps. They're small, about a pound and a half each, and they keep ice from forming on parts of the tank that stick out. Bryan O'Connor, the head safety officer, says that when engineers tried to calculate the risk of foam breaking off here and doing critical damage, they did not like what they saw.

Mr. BRYAN O'CONNOR (Head Safety Officer, NASA): It was high enough that the technical community reviewing the risk thought that this got into the area of what we would say is unacceptable risk.

KESTENBAUM: Unacceptable is not an exact term here. It means likely to happen in the lifetime of the program. There are 16 more shuttle flights planned. NASA's top official, Administrator Mike Griffin, spoke last weekend after their review and he disagreed with that risk assessment.

Dr. MICHAEL GRIFFIN (Chief Administrator, NASA) Now, in fact, we have 114 flights with these ice frost ramps under our belt. And while we've had two loss-of-vehicle incidents, they've not been due to ice frost ramps. So I have a great deal of trouble believing that this is a probable event to be seen over the next 16 flights. I just have trouble with that.

KESTENBAUM: It is extremely unusual for NASA to go ahead when a senior official has voted no go. In fact, a spokesman for NASA said no one could remember it ever happening before. Griffin says part of his thinking is that while a bad hit could damage the shuttle so it could not survive re-entry, the astronauts would make it safely to the space station where they could be rescued.

Dr. GRIFFIN: We would have decisions to make, but we would have time to make those decisions. We are not in the situation that we were in with Columbia, where we didn't know that we had a problem. We know we have a problem. We are electing to take the risk. We do not believe we're risking crew.

KESTENBAUM: NASA says the shuttle crew is comfortable with the decision to go ahead and launch. And Bryan O'Connor, the head safety official who voted no go, says, in fact, he's satisfied with the final decision. He says he does not believe it risks the crew's lives, though it may risk the shuttle. And he says his team is not against the decision to fly.

Mr. O'CONNOR: This was a close enough call for me, that I believe that it should be elevated to the administrator level. He was there. He was certainly cognizant. He heard the whole story. We didn't have to repeat anything for him. He's a very smart engineer. And so I felt very confident that, with his eyes open, he knew where the agency was going and was accepting the risk on the agency's behalf.

KESTENBAUM: O'Connor once resigned over safety issues back in the 1990s. After the Columbia accident, the official investigation placed considerable blame on a broken safety culture, where no-go opinions were not heard. Wayne Hale, the space shuttle program manager, sees this recent debate as healthy.

Mr. WAYNE HALE (Space Shuttle Program Manager, NASA): At the end of the day, some people still had reservations, and they expressed those reservations. And I think that is a great step forward. I think the agency has really changed. I think maybe it's gone to back to the way it was a quarter century ago or more. And that bodes well for the future.

KESTENBAUM: NASA hopes to retire the shuttle in 2010, but Michael Griffin, NASA's administrator, says that if another shuttle gets seriously damaged on the way up, he would move to shut the program down. Sorry if that sounds too blunt to some, he said, but that's where I am.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News, Washington.

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Kestenbaum is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues and, most recently, the global economy for NPR's multimedia project Planet Money. David has been a science correspondent for NPR since 1999. He came to journalism the usual way — by getting a Ph.D. in physics first.