WASHINGTON -- An overly ambitious flight schedule and too much emphasis on image and politics stretched NASA's personnel and equipment resources to the limit in the months before the Challenger disaster, the Rogers Commission report said Monday.
In trying to meet a goal of 24 flights in 1985 and 1986, NASA's reduced staff was overworked, crew training became 'compressed' into unacceptably short periods and the supply of spare parts grew 'critically short,' the commission said in its report on what caused the Challenger disaster.
Numerous last-minute pre-flight changes, such as the additions of Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, and Rep. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., to shuttle crews in 1985 and early 1986, diverted staff attention from far more important concerns, the report said.
Flight preparations became so rushed that lessons learned from one flight were not applied to the next, the commission said.
'Had we not had the accident,' astronaut Henry Hartsfield told the commission in April, 'we were going to be up against a wall ... For the first time, somebody was going to have to stand up and say we have got to slip the launch because we are not going to have the crew trained.'
Horace Lamberth, director of shuttle engineering at the Kennedy Space Center, told the commission in March, 'We would have been brought to our knees' by the spare parts problem by the spring of 1986.
Worker fatigue contributed to a 'serious incident' involving 'liquid oxygen depletion' that occurred less than five minutes before the scheduled liftoff of the shuttle Columbia Jan. 6, the commission said.
The commission faulted NASA managers for rushing to advance the shuttle from a 'research and development' phase, in which careful attention was given to each flight, to an 'operational' stage in which adherence to the schedule became pre-eminent.
'Managers may have forgotten,' the commission said, 'partly because of past success, partly because of their own well-nurtured image of the program, that the shuttle was still in a research and development phase ... In many respects, the system was not prepared to meet an 'operational' schedule.
'The capabilities of the system were stretched to the limit to support the flight rate in winter 1985-1986.'
In 1985, NASA published a projection calling for an annual rate of 24 flights by 1990.
'Long before the Challenger accident, however, it was becoming obvious that even the modified goal of two flights a month was overambitious,' the commission report said.
The commission also was told that NASA managers disregarded complaints from staff that they were spending too much time adjusting to last-minute changes in the cargo, such as the addition of the lawmakers as crew members.
'The political advantages of implementing ... late changes,' Leonard Nicholson, a manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston told the commission in April, 'outweighed our general objections.'
The commission recommended that NASA 'establish a realistic level of expectation, then approach it carefully. Mission schedules should be based on a realistic asessment of what NASA can do safely and well, not on what is possible with maximum effort.'
The commission found no basis to allegations made by some members of Congress, including Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., that the Challenger launch was rushed in response to White House pressure for a phone hookup with the crew during President Reagan's State of the Union address.
Among the commission's specific findings:
-The flight schedule was not adjusted to cope with reductions in skilled personnel from hiring freezes, retirements and transfers. As a result, many contract employees often worked 72 hours a week.
-The amount of time devoted to crew training dropped sharply during 1985.
-The time available for simulator training of the crew plunged by 2 months from the summer of 1985 to the time the Challenger was launched in January. Training of astronauts for Challenger's July 1985 flight began 130 days before launch; training for Challenger's Jan. 28 mission began about 53 days before.
-The two simulators used to train the crew for the ascent, orbit and entry phases were 'out of date.'
-A 'critical' shortage of spare parts also jeopardized flight safety. Budget reductions forced postponement of spare parts purchases and only 64 percent of the required supplies had been delivered as of early 1986. Forty-five of the 300 required parts for Challenger's flight had been 'cannibalized' from previous shuttles.