When an expert NASA panel warned last year that safety troubles loomed for the fleet of shuttles if the agency's budget was not increased, NASA removed five of the panel's nine members and two of its consultants. Some of them now say the agency was trying to suppress their criticisms.
A sixth member, a retired three-star admiral, Bernard M. Kauderer, was so upset at the firings that he quit the group, NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, a group of industry and academic experts charged with monitoring safety at the space agency.
NASA said it changed the charter of the group so that new members, younger and more skilled, could be added. "It had nothing to do with shooting the messenger," said Sonja Alexander, a spokeswoman at NASA headquarters in Washington.
Members of Congress who heard testimony from the panel last spring said yesterday that they would re-examine whether budget constraints had undermined safety, but several said they doubted it. The Bush administration said that it would propose a $470 million increase in NASA spending today, and that the increase was planned before the Columbia's destruction.
Dr. Seymour C. Himmel, who was fired from the advisory panel, said yesterday that "we were telling it like it was and were disagreeing with some of the agency's actions."
The eight departed panel members and consultants had long experience with the shuttles' systems and their troubles. In interviews yesterday, some said NASA had developed an institutional myopia about the panel's warnings, advice and observations, however pointed.
The panel's most recent report, which came out last March and included analyses by the six departed members, warned that work on long-term shuttle safety "had deteriorated." Tight budgets, it said, were forcing an emphasis on short-term planning and adding to a backlog of planned improvements. The report called for sweeping change.
"I have never been as worried for space shuttle safety as I am right now," Dr. Richard D. Blomberg, the panel's chairman, told Congress in April. "All of my instincts suggest that the current approach is planting the seeds for future danger."
His worry, he continued, "is not for the present flight or the next or perhaps the one after that." He added, "One of the roots of my concern is that nobody will know for sure when the safety margin has been eroded too far." He could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Leading members of Congressional committees with oversight of the space program promised yesterday that they would investigate whether the budget policies of the administration and Congress were a factor in the loss of the shuttle.
"A large part of our inquiry will be examining what policies contributed to the loss of the Columbia and what policies should follow the tragedy," said Representative Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican who heads the House Science Committee. But he said he believed the agency had been adequately funded. "Have we done the right things?" he said. "I think the answer is yes."
The breakup of the Columbia as it began re-entry Saturday morning has put renewed focus on a series of government and independent reports that questioned the fitness of the aging shuttle fleet, the impact of scarce federal money, competing priorities and programs at NASA and a changing work force.
As recently as last week, the General Accounting Office said that the space agency was continuing to be challenged by shortages of trained staff members. Over the years other panels have issued similar reports. For example, a NASA committee reported in 2000 that more money and staff members were needed to support operations critical to shuttle safety.
Some lawmakers also contend that the shuttle program has been shortchanged in recent years while the International Space Station now under construction experienced cost overruns. They said budget problems prevented NASA from initiating safety upgrades in the shuttle.
The new NASA administrator, Sean O'Keefe, has been struggling since his appointment to control space station costs.
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, said she was "very concerned that we were diluting our mission with these budget cuts" though NASA assured her that safety remained the agency's top priority.
Lawmakers said they also wanted to explore whether NASA's efforts to reorganize its management approach played any role in the disaster.
"You always have to strike a balance between management efficiency and safety, and in the days ahead the Senate subcommittee I sit on needs to look at how that balance is being set." said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, a member of the Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space.
The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel was set up after the 1967 Apollo fire that killed three astronauts on the ground. It was authorized to study the safety culture of NASA's programs and report to the agency each year on its findings. The panel has wide access to all of NASA's facilities as well was its armies of managers and technicians.
Dr. John G. Stewart, one of the fired consultants, who specialized in studies of NASA's work force, said he was most upset because the firings came in midcycle as the panel was working hard toward its next report. Dr. Stewart had argued for years that NASA's work force cuts were getting dangerous. Yesterday, he said the warnings were finally beginning to be heard when he was forced off the panel.
He said much of the investigative spadework he had recently done at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Johnson Space Center in Houston went unused.
"These work force issues are very important," he said.
But Ms. Alexander of NASA said the newly added panel members were skilled and knowledgeable. One of them, Robert B. Sieck, was formerly director of shuttle processing at the Kennedy Space Center and served as launch director for 52 space shuttle launches.
The newly departed members and consultants, Ms. Alexander added, had an average tenure on the panel of 12 years. The panel's charter, she said, was changed in April 2001 to require a rotation of the membership.
"They were forced out in order to refresh the panel with members carrying skill sets applicable to new technologies and ideas" on how to make the shuttle and other NASA projects safer, she said.
Dr. Norris J. Krone, a fired panel member who heads the University Research Foundation at the University of Maryland, which does civil aeronautics research, said he resented the manner in which he and his colleagues were fired.
"It's unusual to terminate people from a high-level group like that in midterm," he said. "We all thought it was ill-advised."
The White House said late yesterday that Mr. O'Keefe, NASA's administrator, would meet the president Monday and then "fully inform" chairmen and ranking members of the committees and subcommittees with jurisdiction over NASA and its budget.
Staff members of the House Science Committee, which delivered the main Congressional report on the 1986 Challenger explosion, were researching records of the Challenger inquiry yesterday. They were also trying to assemble data on the NASA budget to show precisely the history of funding on the shuttle program and shuttle safety.
"We are going to let everything see the light of day," said Congressman Boehlert, who said an initial review could find no evidence that Congress ever denied a NASA request for resources pinned to safety.
Lawmakers and other space experts on Capitol Hill, however, said it was no secret that NASA has had major difficulties.
"NASA has got a lot of problems, there is no question about it," said one senior official. "They have been under a lot of scrutiny because of some high profile screwups and the enormous cost overruns in the space station."
No hearings have yet been set on Columbia, but lawmakers want to move ahead quickly. The House science panel already had a major session scheduled for Feb. 27 on NASA and officials now expect that hearing to be expanded and refocused.
Lawmakers and staff members who will help run the hearings say they intend any House and Senate sessions to complement the NASA and outside inquiries.
"Everyone is going to be working off the same facts but looking at them from different angles," said David Goldston, chief of staff for the Science Committee. "I think that is healthy but it all has to be coordinated."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company