Eleven years ago, on Feb. 1, 2003, the U.S. lost the space shuttle Columbia and the seven brave souls onboard. In the aftermath of this tragedy, much effort was devoted to determining the physical cause of the loss as well as the organizational reasons. The result of this investigation was the realization that the cultural and organizational issues at NASA were as much a cause as the small piece of foam that struck the wing during liftoff.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) found that cultural traits and organizational practices detrimental to safety were allowed to develop in the shuttle program. Notably, the CAIB cautioned against the treatment of manned spaceflight as a routine affair.
The CAIB said: “Because of the dangers of ascent and reentry, because of the hostility of the space environment and because we are still relative newcomers to this realm, operation of the shuttle and indeed all human spaceflight must be viewed as a developmental activity. It is still far from a routine, operational undertaking. [The board found a] widespread but erroneous perception of the space shuttle as somehow comparable to civil or military air transport. They are not comparable; the inherent risks of spaceflight are vastly higher, and our experience level with spaceflight is vastly lower.”
In addition to its findings, the CAIB made recommendations about future NASA programs that reflect the lessons learned from the accident investigation. With regard to a shuttle follow-on system, the board stated: “The design of the [follow-on] system should give overriding priority to crew safety, rather than trade safety against other performance criteria, such as low cost and reusability, or against advanced space operation capabilities other than crew transfer.”
In the years since the shuttle orbiters were retired, NASA has been making progress in developing follow-on systems. Last November, a request for proposals (RFP) for the development and certification of commercial crew transportation systems was released.
Before the RFP was finalized, the ranking minority member of the space subcommittee, Donna Edwards of Maryland, and I wrote the NASA administrator, voicing our concerns about the document. One of those was that the draft solicitation ran counter to the CAIB's finding that crew safety be given priority over other evaluation factors. We expressed deep concern that Congress was being asked to invest taxpayer dollars in the development of a U.S. human spaceflight system that does not make crew safety the No. 1 priority, as recommended by the CAIB.
Edwards and I are not alone in our concern regarding the relative weight given to safety. In its recently released 2013 annual report, the congressionally chartered Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel stated: “Many . . . worry that NASA is being perceived as sending a message that cost outranks safety in the [Commercial Crew Program] RFP. The RFP's relative order of importance of evaluation factors in Section M conveys: 'Mission suitability and past performance, when combined, are approximately equal to price. The price factor is more important than mission suitability, which is more important than past performance.'”
I do not question the personal commitment of NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to ensuring the safety of astronauts. His leadership in guiding the agency through the planned retirement of the shuttle and making do with less-than-needed funding for replacement systems is commendable. Nevertheless, Congress cannot depend on select individuals and their assurances as substitutes for sound policy and procedures. NASA's policies and procedures must reflect the hard lessons the agency has learned and the painful sacrifices of the crews that have been lost. Otherwise, I fear we will see the agency fall prey to the same cultural and organizational practices that led to the Columbia tragedy.