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Engineer: NASA ignored safety warnings

July 1, 1993

A former NASA engineer charges higher ups in that agency ignored repeated warnings of safety concerns with the space shuttle.

Don Nelson, who spent 36 years with the space agency and retired in 1999, said he raised fears last summer of a catastrophic accident with the shuttle.

Nelson said he sent a letter to President Bush when his appeals to NASA superiors were ignored. He said he told the president that his (Bush’s) personal intervention was needed to prevent another major shuttle accident.

Nelson served on the initial design team for the shuttle and took part in every shuttle upgrade until he retired. In his letter to Bush, Nelson warned that NASA management and the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel failed to respond to increasing warning signs of an impending accident.

He cited a number of problems since 1999 that he said are potentially disastrous. Nelson pointed to these items:

l In 1999, a hydrogen leak delayed Columbia’s launch, and the shuttle Discovery was grounded with damaged wiring, contaminated engine and a dented fuel line.

l January 2000, Endeavor was delayed because of wiring and computer failure.

l August 2000, inspection of Columbia disclosed 3,500 defects in wiring.

l October 2000, the shuttle’s 100th flight was held because of a misplaced safety pin and concerns about the external fuel tank.

l April 2002, the inspector general reported improper management of the shuttle safety program.

l August 2002, the shuttle launch system was shut down after fuel line cracks were found.

Nelson said he had asked for a moratorium on further launches until the problems were corrected, but the White House said no. A second attempt to persuade NASA administrators to halt the launches was also rejected.

Nelson told Britain’s The Observer that he fears the tragedy with Columbia was the climax of what he called “disastrous mismanagement” by the most senior officials at NASA, and will eventually bring on the moratorium he requested.

“I became concerned about safety issues in NASA after Challenger,” Nelson said. “I think what happened is that very slowly over the years, NASA’s culture of safety became eroded.

“But when I tried to raise my concerns with NASA’s new administrator, I received two reprimands for not going through the proper channels, which discouraged other people from coming forward with their concerns. When it came to an argument between a middle-ranking engineer and the astronauts and administration, guess who won,” Nelson said.

“One of my biggest complaints,” he added, “has been that we should have been looking for ways to develop crew escape modules, which NASA has constantly rejected.”

Similar warnings emerged last April from Richard Bloomberg, former chairman of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel. Bloomberg said: “In all of the years of my involvement, I have never been as concerned for space shuttle safety as now.”

His warning echoed those from a September 2001 Senate hearing on key shuttle safety issues. Senators and experts warned budget and management problems were putting astronauts’ lives at risk. At the core of their concerns was the claim that a budget overrun of nearly $5 billion led to a culture in NASA where senior managers treated safety upgrades as optional.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said: “I fear that if we don’t provide the space shuttle program with the resources it needs for safety upgrades, our country is going to pay a price we can’t bear.”

Nelson added: “We’re starving NASA’s shuttle budget and, thus, greatly increasing the chance of a catastrophic loss.”

A year earlier, the General Accounting Office had alerted the administration that the loss of experienced engineers and technicians in the shuttle program was threatening the safety of future missions just as the space agency was planning to boost the number of annual launches to build the space station.

GAO research showed the shuttle program’s workforce had twice as many workers more than 60 years old than under 30. The GAO said the number of workers nearing retirement could jeopardize NASA’s ability to hand over leadership of the program to the next generation.

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