CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., April 8 (UPI) -- Squeezed between the drive to build the space station and years of budget cuts, NASA sacrificed long-term programs vital to keeping the shuttle operational for another two decades, an aerospace safety expert said Tuesday.
In a sensitive but dire assessment, Richard Blomberg, the former head of NASA's independent safety advisory panel, said years of neglect had resulted in a shuttle program that was operating safely only in the short term, a scenario that came to a crashing to a halt on Feb. 1, when shuttle Columbia disintegrated in the skies over Texas, snuffing out the lives of seven astronauts.
In a public hearing held by the board probing the disaster, Blomberg said he had never run across people more committed to safety than the people at NASA. Ultimately, though, they faced a losing battle, he said.
"When you're so goal-oriented and you're so budget-limited you tend to put blinders on and you tend to look at the next flight," said Blomberg. "The old not-seeing-the-forest-for-the trees comes into play."
The space shuttle staffers "were under enormous stress," he added. "Stress on one side (not to be) the weak link in the international effort to put a space station up, and on the other side the very real knowledge that if they could not perform within budget, there was a risk to the entire program and therefore to their lives, to what they had dedicated themselves to. Whether they inadvertently missed something because of their zeal, their innovation, their capabilities remains to be seen," Blomberg said.
"They need relief. They're not going to be able to fly for another 20 years under the stress levels that they've been asked to fly under for the last seven or eight years," he told the investigation team.
The panel is looking into how NASA bypassed its own stringent safety calls to clear Columbia for flight despite the loss of a piece of foam insulation that fell off the fuel tank during launch of the previous shuttle and hit the ship's solid rocket booster.
That should have set off the system NASA painstakingly put in place after the 1986 Challenger accident, which also killed seven astronauts. Foam debris has been a problem since the start of the shuttle program, added Boeing manager Dan Bell, an expert in the shuttle's thermal protection system.
Preliminary findings show a breach in Columbia's left wing allowed hot gases to get inside the structure, melting it. The leading suspicion is that foam debris hit Columbia sustained at liftoff.
Board chairman Harold Gehman said neither his panel nor NASA is satisfied with the analysis performed during Columbia's 16-day research mission that concluded the strike on the shuttle's left wing was not a serious issue. Based on that analysis, NASA bypassed offers to use military satellites to try to image the shuttle's wing to look for signs of damage.
Board member Sally Ride, a former astronaut, said the oversights are similar to management flaws uncovered following the Challenger accident.
Gehman added NASA needs to make an aggressive effort to build into its system processes for uncovering unknown and potentially deadly hazards.
"Somewhere humans failed," Blomberg said.